I agonized for a while over whether to rate this title two or three stars, and I think ultimately I'd say it's 2.5 stars for me - rounded up to three to be nice since I don't actively dislike the book. Trouble is: I also didn't particularly enjoy the whole thing. There were pieces (and one side character) I liked and the concept was fascinating, but ultimately I found myself deeply disappointed and often bored with this one. For a story where the dead can come back to life and an extremely toxic friendship is explored, I expected more emotion and resolution and drama. Instead, things just kind of crawl along slowly and meander through a field of reasons why Dino and July should have never been friends in the first place, peppered with plot points which make absolutely no sense.
Perhaps the most egregious plot hole here is the fact July is described as actively decaying. Her skin's coming off, but nobody other than Dino ever notices or mentions it. She smells like death and decay because she wasn't embalmed, yet people just kind of deal with it for the most part. Have you ever smelled a decomposing corpse?! I have - albeit in the sense of roadkill and such - and let me tell you: that goes far beyond thinking someone smells a little ripe. It is a highly distinctive scent, it gets in your nose and makes you feel like it's crawling all over your skin. It causes a gag reflex for a lot of people. And we're supposed to believe that for several days - I think a week or longer - July is walking around, skin peeling off, leaving the scent of decaying corpses behind her and... that's it, that's all, nobody runs away and pukes or notices the rotting flesh?
I'd be okay with this as suspension of disbelief territory, if only we weren't reminded of the rotting skin and smell of decay every few pages. In fact, at one point, she's told not to move her thumb or its skin will fall off again; afterward, she does all manner of things from driving to touching people to texting to playing video games with someone which would absolutely require use of her thumb. The skin doesn't fall back off. She doesn't even split the stitches Dino used to reattach the flesh.
If not for the (very frustrating, I believe) hopping between Dino's and July's points of view, I'd have taken these elements to mean we were being set up to discover it was all a dream or hallucination at the end. With how little sense everything surrounding the paranormal element makes, I'd have welcomed a “just a dream” ending with open arms and probably liked this book a bit more as a result.
After all, when it's revealed that death has outright stopped happening all around the world, rules are established for the paranormal element which directly contradict everything about July's resurrection. One woman apparently can't speak or respond due to "missing more of her brain than is left" after an accidental shooting, but July herself has had all of her internal organs removed and she's still sentient and functional while she slowly rots from the inside out. And we never get a true explanation, just a vague theory. While the whole world keeps going on like “lol nbd, this is just generic news, no reason to panic.” People get more upset about rain storms in real life than they did about such a huge revelation in this book.
Since I was hoping for a book that veered firmly into paranormal territory while also exploring interpersonal relationships, this was a huge letdown for me. However, since I don't feel particularly strongly one way or the other - and goodreads has the most ridiculous review length limits - I'm not sure how to articulate what I liked and disliked. Enter my friend, the list! I'll start with what I didn't like and end with what I did, so I can leave on a positive note.
* Instead of realistic teenage voices, we get characters who sound like they're chatting online in the early 2010s. Example, from July's dialogue: “Uh-oh. Better call the dramahawk ‘cause the waaambulance'll take too long to get here.” Is this really how teens talk in person these days? Please tell me it isn't. Do people even use the whole ‘waaambulance' thing anymore? I remember it being big online back when I was in my late teens, and I'm nearly thirty now! July also references the Janet Jackson nip slip, which would have happened when she was a toddler, and knows more about it than I do despite having been fourteen at the time myself.
* There's a preachy SJW-level morality thrown in at every opportunity. Let me count the most noticeable ways this occurs:
01. July is scolded for making homophobic jokes not because doing so is hurtful and wrong but because she's not gay herself thus it's “not her joke to tell.” Why can't we just agree that perpetuating harmful stereotypes is wrong, full stop, instead? Being LGBT doesn't mean you aren't responsible for aiding in the reinforcement of bigoted beliefs when you tell shitty stereotype-based jokes yourself; every bigot who hears a gay person reinforce a generalization then feels validated because hey look even they believe it's true is worse than a straight ally who makes an oops because gay people around her also make or tolerate those jokes. Hypocrisy is just wrong, m'kay!
02. We're reminded at least three times that the president both exists and is a moron, despite it literally never being relevant and people generally reading to escape the bullshit of real life. Just fucking stop, please. That dead horse has been beaten to a pulp by now.
03. A young woman who was perfectly happy and excited to be married nearly decides to call it off because “it's a tool of the patriarchy” or something like that. She's magically worried about how marriage may change her and her future husband might want her to be a housewife simply because he wants kids at some point. Nothing even comes of it, other than a chapter full of what feels like a buzzfeed article.
04. “Come pretend to be a zombie and scare my mom's boss because he grabs her inappropriately! I am a teenager whose mom apparently tells her about this, but doesn't have the wherewithal to tell the police or upper management. And this is definitely not just an awkward attempt to hit more social justice hot topics. Promise!” Obviously not a direct quote, but the best way I can explain it.
05. July herself is a disgusting amalgam of every “bad straight ally” and “stupid cis white bitch” stereotype possible. There's no reason someone who's that blatantly and wilfully ignorant would have ever had a best friend who wasn't just as nasty - especially a gay one! Her characterization feels like a cheap attempt to have an excuse to check off all the buzzwords and morals which frankly don't fit in a story of this tone.
06. “Why is it that when a guy knows what he wants and goes after it and is proud of who he is, people call him a winner or a leader, but when a girl does it she's a selfish bitch?” This is a direct quote of the response to July being told that she's selfish and made people feel obligated to worship her during her confirmation party. It is completely irrelevant to the situation, because she really is terribly selfish and nobody would call a male a “leader” or “winner” for being a jerk like that. Instead of accepting criticism or admitting it hurts, she turns it into some bullshit social justice thing to silence Dino.
07. Dino tells July she isn't a selfish bitch - which is a lie - and that people are jealous she can get what she wants. Except the selfish things she's done have literally nothing to do with that. She makes Dino coming out be about her, outs him to the whole school, twists being called out on bigotry into a self-pity party, gets jealous of Dino's boyfriend spending more time with him than her, etc. But let's ignore that to push the narrative that calling a girl selfish just means you're sexist and jealous of her ‘success' in life!
And those are just the most blatant instances.
* Instead of compelling, emotionally-driven narrative, we get detached writing which makes both July and Dino feel like they're suffering dissociative episodes. They're not, by the way. The writing just carries no emotion, even in the rare moments where the characters do show emotion. (Seriously, the reactions to July's resurrection are so flat and lifeless from everyone except a single side character.)
* Death has stopped happening worldwide, and nobody reacts realistically. There is no horror, no chaos, no mass hysteria - even though the whole thing is covered on the news.
* July is a horrible person, and I deeply resent the book's attempts to redeem her without forcing her to own up to how bad she is. Let's count the most egregious ways:
01. misgenders her “best friend's” trans boyfriend and gets pissed off when called out on it
02. calls Dino her “girlfriend” because he's a gay guy
03. makes shitty, bigoted remarks, and gets angry when others try to explain why it's wrong
04. body shames skinny people (despite knowing Dino himself is thin and insecure about his body) but gets angry when she's body shamed for her curves
05. actively thinks of Dino as spineless and other insulting things which shame him for his anxiety issues
06. frequently manipulates people and twists everything until she's absolved of her wrongdoings and the other person feels a need to apologize (it's damn near gaslighting)
07. made Dino's coming out be about her instead of him by crying that she was afraid she'd turned him gay (yes, really)
08. outed Dino to the entire school without permission
09. responds to being told about her toxic cycle of manipulation with: “Cry me a river, build a bridge, and get over it.”
10. sneaks into Rafi's bedroom and snooped around his personal belongings
* Dino himself is an annoying person who does shitty things, too. I mean, he breaks up with Rafi because he isn't sure whether he feels love yet when Rafi does. Because, you know, hurting someone very important who cares a lot about you is totally a better option than actually partaking in a little self-reflection or just being honest and saying you need time to think. It's very odd and out of left field, too - not congruent with Dino's character at all - and, worse, inspired by something July told him. So, yeah, July's an obnoxious idiot bu Dino's an oblivious idiot and together they make one giant pot of Idiot Stew, which gets poured into a metaphorical Slurpee Cup otherwise known as this book.
* The ending sucks and feels extremely anti-climactic. This book goes out with a pathetic whimper, at best. By the ending, all the trudging through frustrating back-and-forth with Dino and July seems utterly pointless.
* Dino ends up apologizing for “not being a good friend” when the only thing he ever did wrong to July was call her out on being a shitty friend and exclude her from being around people he thought she'd hurt with her harmful ‘jokes' and remarks. (He was right, by the way!) This book builds up what seems to be letting go of an extremely toxic friendship then backpedals to tie everything up in an ugly bow as if the non-toxic person were also partly responsible for finally breaking the friendship in the past. As someone who's been trapped in cyclic toxicity before, I was highly annoyed and disappointed by this element.
* Rafi, Dino's trans boyfriend, feels more like a tool to further Dino's plot with July. I love Rafi - you'll see him in the positives section soon - but every scene he's in (except the first chapter) feels more like it's about how he impacts Dino and July's “friendship” than about his relationship with Dino or him as an individual.
* Dino points out that body shaming is disgusting and wrong whether the person being attacked is skinny or overweight. I was ecstatic to see this message included, because I'm so sick of the current trend of people pretending that the nastiness overweight people face somehow means it's okay or ‘not as bad' to make thinner people feel like trash or hate their own bodies. One group's pain does not negate the fact that another group doesn't deserve to endure self-hatred or bullying!
* Rafi is amazing! His personality is fun, his relationship with Dino feels genuine, and overall he's basically the best character in this book. (Seriously, he's the only character I actually liked.) While July drags others down, Rafi lifts them up. He cares selflessly about his friends, does his best to make sure Dino understands how special he is in Rafi's eyes, helps a friend see that an ex's choice of new partner isn't a reflection on their worthiness or lack thereof, and overall just... is a precious cinnamon bun with a bit of snark and humour on top. I want more of characters like Rafi and less of characters like July, please!
* There's a very poignant and accurate explanation of depression, as told by a young man who tried to commit suicide by overdose. (He, like July, is one of the people who should be dead.) He explains how depression is this veil of darkness and despair which settles in even when your life seems to be going okay and isolates you from everyone who cares until you're convinced that they don't care at all and you deserve to be lost and alone and sad. The way he said it - which I won't share, because it's something which deserves to be read in its entirety and experienced within proper context - resonated with me so much as someone who struggles with depression.
* The humour is fun and got a few, real chuckles from me. For the most part, the humour is juvenile - fart jokes and decomposing body smells, etc. - but it works in the way a b-movie comedy might. It's light hearted and a welcome relief from the constant bickering between Dino and July.
* This book is well-written. Yeah, there's the outdated pop (and meme) culture references and the often heavy-handed morality, but I don't consider those to be issues with the writing quality so much as with the content. Other than a few typos - ‘lead' where it should say ‘led,' ‘then' where it should say ‘the' - the style flows well and is mostly enjoyable to read. Despite being bored and annoyed several times - and disliking the main characters - I still felt compelled to keep reading.
* The cover is awesome. I just had to add that one, because it's so pretty!
And that's all I have room to say, but I think it sums up my main thoughts fairly accurately. I really wanted to love this book. The cover is gorgeous, the premise is intriguing, but unfortunately the actual content just does not deliver what I expected. I'm honestly just sad and disappointed at the ending, but not enough to regret reading this book.