Author: A.S. King
Release Date: Oct. 11, 2016

Let me just get this out of the way: you need to read this book. “Me?” You ask, wondering if I’ve somehow acquired the power to stare through my screen directly into your currently reading eyes. Yes. You. It doesn’t matter who you are, because there is not a single person on the planet I would not recommend this book to. Family, prepare to be hassled as I thrust my copy into your arms.

I do not make this pronouncement lightly. But I make it nonetheless, because not only is this a fabulously written book, it is an important book. Very different from the escapist fantasy I often gravitate toward, Still Life with Tornado grapples head on with the effects of physical and emotional abuse toward both spouses and children, issues that can lurk in the shadows of the seemingly normal family right next door. There isn’t any content that a middle-grader couldn’t handle, and the reality that such abuse is all too prevalent in society is not something we can shrink from.

It basically left me like this:

Sixteen-year-old Sarah has always been an aspiring artist, lauded by her family, friends and teachers for her talent. Except she can’t draw anymore. There’s no single cause, she simply arrives in class one day and is unable to bring herself to create anything. Is it something the teacher said? Is it the result of the rift in the art club? Is she having an existential crisis? Or is there something more?

Luckily, Sarah has the perfect person to help her figure it out – herself. Literally. The “real” Sarah starts running into past and future versions of herself all around Philadelphia. She presumes them to be crazed hallucinations until bystanders acknowledge their existence without realizing the significance.

And it’s 10-year-old Sarah, only a month removed from the family’s fateful vacation to Mexico, who will really bring it all crashing down. Something happened on that trip, but 16-year-old Sarah has blocked it from her mind. She knows her older brother left home immediately afterward, but she can’t remember what would lead a young man to sever all contact with his family for six years. Perhaps this, the arrival of the other Sarahs, is an indication that it’s time for her to wake up and face the tornado that is her family.

I know the premise of alternate timeline personas sounds weird and trippy, but trust me when I say it works.Where the Sarahs came from isn’t even important, because you will be completely wrapped up in her family’s struggle to heal and move on, even if that means cutting certain ties. Seeing Sarah at 10, 16, 23 and 40 is a fantastic introspective tool: I liked seeing how the different Sarahs viewed and remembered the impact of different life events, or in the case of 16-year-old Sarah, willfully ignored them.

Age and life experience alter their responses slightly, but they still read as a cohesive individual. 10 is full of youthful exuberance, 16 is tired of people always asking about her future, 23 is rather full of herself, and 40 thankfully turned out pretty cool. Author A.S. King has perfectly captured the voice of the teenage years – uncertainty for the future, feeling powerless to change things, musings about the potential for love and friendship, and the ability to be completely apathetic when the mood strikes. “Nothing new ever really happens.”

You also see snippets from her mother’s mind and flashbacks to the doomed Mexico vacation. This reminded me strongly of the style of The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, which comes out in November and features alternating chapters between the two lead characters, along with side chapters containing contextual information about culture or secondary characters that really round out the storyline. Also, if you’ve read We Were Liars, the slow revelation of an uncomfortable, foggy truth will be familiar, though an important distinction is that Sarah is innocent, while the gang of friends in We Were Liars are definitely not.

I think the most important message of Still Life with Tornado can be summed up in this quote (which is taken from an advance copy and not the final publication):

The absence of violence is not love.

We do get resolution to Sarah’s artistic drought and questions about friendship and personal worth, but what we should all take from this book is that the blame for abuse will never, ever rest with the victims. It’s never something they said or did. It’s never something they didn’t say or do. This important point is driven home again and again within the context of Sarah’s family. Her dad does not get points for yelling instead of hitting. Her mom is not portrayed as weak for not being able to break the cycle. Sarah is not to blame for believing her family was normal. Her brother was not wrong for escaping.

I honestly had no idea what to expect when I picked this up. I needed a book for the third week of ARC August and this looked like something I could easily finish in a weekend. Imagine my surprise when I was confronted with a wrenching, heartfelt, slightly bizarre and incredible story of survival and what love and family should be. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. So turn in a purchase request to your library, get on the hold list, do a pre-order, and prepare to be deeply moved when October rolls around and this hits shelves like a tornado.

Note: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.