With Leland unable to find work, Irene's family moves back to her grandfather's farm, now a plant nursery. Irene's grandfather is kindly man, who tries to stay out of the deepening conflict between her parents and between Irene and her mother. Although her mother, Andrea, doesn't like it there, Irene and her father settle in reasonably well with plenty of loving help from her grandfather. Soon Irene meets a fascinating family in town and begins a friendship with a girl Meg, who is a year older than her. More importantly, Irene begins to develop a friendship with Meg's brother, fifteen year old Jim.
In the meantime, Irene's father struggles to find work in the city and to cope with being unemployed. He enjoys helping his father in the nursery, getting dirty and mucking about. Irene's mother however, is too much the New York socialite and she chafes at living with grandfather and at the unrefined, earthy lifestyle on the farm.
Irene knows from talking with her half-sister, Jenna, that her parents had a lifestyle beyond their means and that this unrealistic way of living is what brought them down. This knowledge makes her angry at both of them, but more at her mother, who seems unable to accept the reality of the family's dire financial situation.
Just as Irene is getting settled into the farmhouse, her parents ship her off to Wyoming to visit Jenna who is doing research on bighorn sheep in Montana. This gives Irene and Jenna a chance to reconnect, as Jenna left home and went to live with her dad when Irene was very young. Irene also learns from Jenna that her mother might be pressuring her grandfather to sell his farm so that they will have a solution to their money problems. Irene does not want her grandfather to do this, not for her nor for her parents.
When Irene returns from her vacation in Wyoming, the situation at home rapidly reaches a crisis point when her parents take her to see their new apartment in New York. Unable to make yet another adjustment, and furious over the fact that her parents continue to make decisions about her life without ever consulting her, Irene takes a drastic step that finally gets their attention and their consideration.
Everything I Was is a coming of age novel that is brilliantly written and wonderfully engaging. In Irene, Demas has crafted a realistic character whom the reader can easily identify with and grow to love. It is wonderful to see Irene's relationship with her grandfather develop more depth. His wisdom and advice provide a strong support for Irene in this time of uncertainty. He also encourages her to be more tolerant and forgiving, especially towards her mother.
Irene's mother's inability to accept their financial situation and her unwillingness to sacrifice much helps the reader to empathize with Irene and her father. Andie is selfish and superficial, caring more for status and appearances than anything else. When she discovers that Irene has made new friends, Andie tells Irene to be careful about the people she "selects" to be her friends, further alienating Irene.
I enjoyed how Irene was the type of person who accepted others even though they might be different or believe differently. When an accident happens to one of the members of the family she has befriended, Irene recognizes how their Catholic faith might help them through this tough time. She remembers her friend in New York, Frankie, who was also Catholic.
"It seemed a fortunate thing for Meg that both she and her mom were practicing Catholics. My old friend Frankie's family was Catholic, and I knew that being Catholic offered you the activity of prayer, a useful occupation when there was nothing else to do, and it also offered you a degree of hope. Being Catholic meant that there was not only a benevolent God you could appeal to, but also Christ and the Virgin Mary, and a whole collection of assorted saints. If you had to face trials in life, it seemed as if Catholics were better armed than the rest of us. If there was anything that I envied Meg, it was that."
This passage caught me entirely by surprise - and it wonderfully expresses a view about Catholicism that many non-Catholics hold. Ours is a living faith, filled with traditions that offer much comfort in terrible times, but also filled with joyous feasts and celebrations.
Everything I Was is as much a story about a young girls self-discovery as it is about a family's troubles. After a summer of living on the farm, Irene finds that she is not the same person she was months before. She's beginning to grow up and wants to have a say in what happens in her life.
This short novel is relevant to the times we currently live in with high unemployment, poor job security, slow economic growth, and with many people living a lifestyle that is largely unsustainable and often beyond their means. In this way, many teens will be able to relate to the storyline, because it's one we seen over and over again online and in the news. And the storyline in Everything I Was is realistic.
I do hope that Corinne Demas will consider writing a sequel to this wonderful short novel. This book is definitely geared towards younger readers aged 12 to 14.
Everything I Was by Corinne Demas
Carolrhoda Lab, an imprint of Carolrhoda Books 2011