This book was recommended to me by Esmè, who wrote into my Buffy rewatch podcast, Prophecy Girls. Some of our comments on the show about how strange life at Sunnydale High must be for students who aren’t in the know about Buffy’s life reminded Esmè of The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Indeed, it sounds like a great choice for me: I love “meta” books that deconstruct literary tropes like this in a way that is self-aware without being too patronizing of the trope itself. Also, Patrick Ness had somehow managed to elude me this entire time, and so it was time to read something he has written! While I won’t say I loved this book, I did enjoy a lot of its themes.
Mikey is not a Chosen One, or in the lingo of this book, one of the “indie kids.” He doesn’t have a slick indie kid name like Finn, and he doesn’t always seem to be turning up dead. Mikey is a side character in all those dystopian fantasy YA novels you love to read. Except this story is about him. It’s about his relationships with his friends and family, about his struggle with OCD, and about his attempt to find worth for himself in a confusing, chaotic world.
Trigger warnings in this book for mentions of eating disorder, mental illness, and suicide ideation.
At the beginning of each chapter, Ness provides a small introduction that summarizes what’s happening with the “main” storyline of the indie kids. We are witnessing everything from Mikey’s point of view, so even though there are immortal faeries trying to invade our world, we don’t see that except for the moments that intersect with Mikey’s life or the flavour text at the start of each chapter. I liked how this narrative device kept us grounded in Mikey’s reality while acknowledging that something bigger was happening behind the scenes.
Similarly, Mikey and his friends often discuss how difficult it is to get adults in town to acknowledge the weirdness—even though they also went through it in high school. It’s as if you grow up and suppress it through a hefty dose of cognitive dissonance. This is far from the only way in which Ness examines how YA fantasy fiction with Chosen Ones is really a metaphor for growing up: the wounds of adolescence fade and scar over, and most adults struggle to believe that what teens experience is as real, as deep, as the teens themselves believe it to be. (This is one reason I enjoy reading young adult fiction so much—it keeps me grounded in teenage experiences, even as I march inexorably into middle age.)
Mikey and his sister are graduating in a few weeks. They are on the cusp of that scariest time of adolescence, the liminal space between dependence and independence. Mikey craves the freedom to escape and move away, yet he’s also concerned—for his mental health, for his sister’s mental health, and for his feelings for Henna. As the weeks tick down towards the graduation ceremony, Mikey and the others navigate what would, in any other novel, be fairly mundane events.
This is where I was less satisfied with how Ness uses the central premise of The Rest of Us Just Live Here. I understand that, in order for the novel to work, Mikey’s life needs to be boring and ordinary. Nevertheless, the result is a plot that overall is quite boring and ordinary. Towards the end (without spoiling it), Mikey’s story intersects with that of the indie kids in a way that even the indie kids themselves didn’t foresee—but even then, Ness kind of cheats thanks to some revelations about Mikey’s friend, Jared. While I wasn’t all that interested in the indie kids plot happening behind the scenes (Ness keeps it fairly generic on purpose), the relentless focus on how Mikey’s experiences are different from the indie kids because they are so boringly normal felt … well, boring. The Chosen One story in the background acts like an anchor that drags the main plot’s pace to a crawl—in other words, had the book jettisoned its whole premise and simply been a story about a teenage boy struggling with OCD, graduation thoughts, romance, etc., it would have been a better story. There. I said it.
So from a literary criticism perspective, I don’t think Ness succeeds at critiquing and deconstructing the Chosen One narrative in YA. To do this, I think he would have needed more intersections with the two worlds. The indie kids in this book are all shallow, flat characters with little to recommend them or make them interesting to us. As a result, Ness never takes the opportunity to truly juxtapose the emotional weight of the decisions the indie kids face versus the decisions the non-indie kids face.
On the other hand, The Rest of Us Just Live Here still has a lot of merit as a story. I love the way Ness handles Mikey’s feelings for Henna. I headcanon Mikey as aromantic—the book literally starts off with Henna describing romantic attraction only for Mikey to repeatedly say, throughout the book, that he doesn’t feel like that towards Henna. Even if this isn’t explicitly aromantic rep, I appreciate that Ness is portraying a teenage boy character who isn’t a horn dog on main—Mikey’s attraction to Henna (however you label it) is the confusing attraction of one person to his friend, and they explore it in a way that I think, frankly, is healthy and mature for two people on the cusp of adulthood to go about it.
Similarly, there are some good moments between Mikey and his other family members. As I said above, I think there are times when the book doesn’t delve deeply enough into these ideas. Ness is really pulling from some stock characters here, such as in the case of Mikey’s dad. The book doesn’t quite spend the time fleshing his parents out into actual humans, even if it comes close with Mikey’s mom by the end. However, the relationship dynamics are solid and not one-dimensional: Mikey’s mom is neither a tyrant nor suddenly a cuddly, feeling person. Her relationship with her children is complicated by her political ambitions, by her role as a woman in politics, by her strained marriage, etc. These are normal, common experiences that deserve to be represented in YA, which all too often kills off parents (especially in Chosen One YA) or relegates them to being one-dimensional tropes of parental strictness, laxity, concern, etc.
The Rest of Us Just Live Here, then, is neither a slam dunk nor a total miss of a novel. It’s messy, in my opinion, and not entirely successful at what it sets out to do. But it’s full of good moments, good characters, good ideas, and that might make it worth the read for some.
I’ll conclude with a shout-out to one of my favourite Doubleclicks songs, “Can’t You See the World Is Ending?”. It’s such a clever and catchy song about the conflict between being a teenage Chosen One and Ordinary High School Life; I think of Kim Possible every time I listen to it, and it makes me smile.