Title: What You Left Behind by Jessica Verdi
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Genre: Contemporary, Young Adult
Length: 368 pages
Book Rating: A
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
Jessica Verdi, the author of My Life After Now and The Summer I Wasn’t Me, returns with a heartbreaking and poignant novel of grief and guilt that reads like Nicholas Sparks for teens.
It’s all Ryden’s fault. If he hadn’t gotten Meg pregnant, she would have never stopped her chemo treatments and would still be alive. Instead he’s failing fatherhood one dirty diaper at a time. And it’s not like he’s had time to grieve while struggling to care for their infant daughter, start his senior year, and earn the soccer scholarship he needs to go to college.
The one person who makes Ryden feel like his old self is Joni. She’s fun and energetic-and doesn’t know he has a baby. But the more time they spend together, the harder it becomes to keep his two worlds separate. Finding one of Meg’s journals only stirs up old emotions. Ryden’s convinced Meg left other notebooks for him to find, some message to help his new life make sense. But how is he going to have a future if he can’t let go of the past?
What You Left Behind by Jessica Verdi is an incredibly emotional and poignant journey of healing for lead protagonist Ryden Brooks. This seventeen year old single father is trying to be a good dad to his six month old daughter while struggling to come to terms with the grief and guilt he continues to experience over his girlfriend Meg’s death. However, Ryden’s biggest challenge is facing the reality that the hopes and dreams he has been striving for might no longer be attainable.
What You Left Behind begins with Ryden hoping to resume the life he had before Meg died and fatherhood. Summer is ending, soccer practice is starting and his senior year is about to begin. While most of his classmates are worried about prom and college, Ryden is trying to sort out babysitting for his daughter so he can clinch the soccer scholarship that is his ticket to a better life. However, juggling a teething baby, a part time job, soccer practice and homework is next to impossible and at this point, all Ryden wants is to feel like a normal teenager. Meeting his co-worker Joni Rios provides him this opportunity since she knows nothing about his past and although he knows that lying to her is wrong, Ryden continues to keep his real life a secret from her.
In many ways, Ryden is a typical teenager. He is a little selfish, he does not always think things through and he has a bit of an unrealistic viewpoint of his future. But these negative traits are outweighed by the fact that he is taking complete responsibility for his actions. He chose to keep his daughter and although he feels completely out of his depth with her, he is trying to make the best decisions possible for their future. Ryden is not completely on his own since his mom is more than willing to help out as much as possible, but at the end of the day, he is completely responsible for taking of his baby.
Ryden’s struggles are realistically depicted and his difficulties are compounded by the crushing guilt he feels for getting Meg pregnant. He has been so focused on caring for his daughter that he has not really come to terms with his grief over her death. The discovery of one of Meg’s journals leaves him convinced that she is trying to leave him a message. Hoping to find answers that will help him become a better father, Ryden is quickly consumed by his search for the other two journals he is certain she left behind. Will these journals give him the information he is hoping for? Will reading Meg’s thoughts help him heal or will they destroy the little progress he has made in the months since her death?
What You Left Behind is an extremely well-written young adult novel that touches on many relevant societal issues. Jessica Verdi does an absolutely outstanding job balancing difficult issues with sensitivity and the resulting story is one that will touch reader’s hearts. A heartrending, touching and ultimately uplifting novel that I highly recommend to readers of all ages.