Jennifer Brown writes powerful books about tough topics, and she does it exceedingly sensitively and, therefore, exceedingly well. I still remember reading Hate List and straight up sobbing through the last chapters. I still remember being so moved by it that it was hard to read anything after it, and only reading another infinitely touching book (Gayle Foreman’s If I Stay) got me through it. Reading her newest novel, Bitter End, didn’t crumple me up like Hate List, but it left me aching the whole time I was reading. I couldn’t put this book down because I had to find out where Alex was going and in what state she was going to get there.
Bitter End tells the story of Alex, a smart, funny, and, underneath all that, infinitely sad girl with the kind of family history which makes you want to give her a hug. She has two great best friends, Zack and Bethany, an annoying little sister, a good boss, and a dad who doesn’t pay a whole lot of attention to her. And by that I mean none. Her life has goals, even if they aren’t traditional ones, and for all her sadness she seems happy too. Enter Cole, the hot, seemingly sensitive transfer student that Alex gets assigned to tutor. Only soon they’re moving past tutoring and Alex’s whole world is flipped upside down.
This book was hard to read at times, and in so many different and (painfully) good ways. It was hard to read about the things Cole did to Alex. It was hard to see the slow buildup of her just accepting the physical violence and emotional abuse and blaming herself. It was hard to read about how she turned her back on her friends and hard to read about how they kind of turned their backs on her. It was hard to read when Alex’s dad, despite warnings that his daughter might be in trouble, seemed to brush it off in his own grief. And that’s what made this book so amazing. Because all of those things are hard to read, but even harder to live. I felt there with Alex. At one point, after a blow to her face, I had my hand on my cheek without even realizing it. And this is Jennifer Brown’s biggest strength: she makes you feel things. Physical things. Emotional things. I find myself feeling more connected to her characters than in other books.
Cole was also amazingly written. He had all the stereotypes of abusers that people tend to cite. A strained family life. A history of emotional abuse by his father. A father who (so it seems as you read), beats his mother. And yet, even with all of that, we’re not supposed to feel sorry for Cole. Not really. You do, because it’s so sad, but then you think about Alex and it’s so much harder. No excuses are being made for Cole, and for that I was glad. He and Alex are excellent foils in that regard – two people with similar backgrounds who grew up to be two totally different people.
I didn’t just feel connected to the main characters either. The secondary characters in this book are all relatable and real. Zack’s goofballery and protectiveness masking his fierce loyalty to his friend’s. Bethany’s quiet, easy-going nature hiding the same thing. Even Celia, Alex’s younger sister, had a distinct presence that went beyond just pesky younger sibling.
All of them were feeling the same pain and frustration that I felt as a reader with Alex sometimes. But you want to shake them too because this is their friend and she’s in trouble even if she can’t ask for it. And that’s another thing that makes this book so interesting. For Zack and Bethany, Alex won’t ask for help, but in her mind she simply can’t do it. It was a heartbreaking struggle to watch because the whole time you’re reading, you have a gut-sinking feeling of how it might end and what might happen and you desperately need everyone to just fix themselves. But of course, life is never as simple as all that, and neither was this book.