Review: The Beginner’s Guide to Living by Lia Hills

The Beginner's Guide to LIving Book Cover The Beginner's Guide to LIving
Lia Hills

Seven days after his mother is killed in a sudden, senseless accident, seventeen-year-old Will Ellis begins to write a list of questions in his notebook, feeling like he wants to break the whole world open and dig around until he gets some answers. His search for meaning leads him to the great philosophers – Seneca, Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche – and to Taryn, the beautiful girl he meets at his mother’s wake. Overwhelmed by grief and simultaneously intoxicated by first love, Will is desperate to find, however he can, something authentic, something so true he would live or die for it. But as his quest intensifies, it leads him down a dangerous path. Is he willing to risk losing Taryn – losing everything – to seek the answers he craves?

Review:

The Beginner’s Guide to Living is a book that you may not appreciate until you finish reading it and have a chance to sit back and reflect. While I was in the process of reading, I wasn’t impressed. There are a few passages that just seem weird, as if there is no real purpose for their inclusion. There’s a moment in the book, for example, when Will is taking a bath and farts in the tub. What the heck is that about? Why did the author feel the need to mention it? Again, super weird.

Luckily, Hills compensates for these occasional odd moments. There’s a wealth of wisdom and insight to be found on these pages, and a couple of lines are so heartbreaking that they just stopped me in my tracks. For example, there is a point in the novel when Will asks his dad what he feels is the worst thing about the death of Will’s mom. His dad answers simply, “That I didn’t die first.” After I read this, I was so overcome with emotion that I had to put the book down for a minute or two.

There are also some observations and statements that struck me as incredibly profound. Will is full of grief and rage and despair, and his life is nearly unbearable; making it through a single day without his mother seems impossible, let alone the rest of his life. Taryn is one of the only people who can reach him through the haze of grief, and Will observes, “The fact that I love her makes it possible to exist.” This sentence may be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.

One thing that didn’t appeal to me, at least initially, is the fact that the book’s structure seems very loose. I wasn’t able to discern much of a story arc, at least in terms of major action. Will mostly just writes in his journal, meditates, reads and questions, and while these things are all well and good, they’re not what I think of as the components of a solid plot.

This really bothered me at first, but my opinion changed after I reached the last page and took a moment to really think about what I’d read: a story about how losing someone sets you adrift. In the real world, there is no rhyme or reason to grief, no clearly defined path from Point A, devastation, to Point B, healing. It makes sense, then, that there isn’t an easily identifiable plot to The Beginner’s Guide to Living. The structure mirrors the reality of the grieving process, blind and aimless and desperate. It’s actually kind of brilliant that Hills wrote the book this way, and I have a greater appreciation for it as a result.

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