The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers is a story of a toxic friendship between two girls that ends in tragedy. Shrouded within the mystery of a terrible accident is a toxic love triangle involving one young girl confused about her sexual identity and another with a troubled past.
The novel opens with the ending of the story and then works its back to that point with alternating narrators. It is July 31st, the middle of the summer. The story begins with one of the major characters, Kurt Hartnett, indicating that there has been a terrible car crash at a bridge outside of Edenville. Kurt is at a party at his best friend Xander Buckmaster's home where he overhears people talking about Ivy Foulds and Calliope Carraway who are on their way to the same party. One of the partiers screams that there has been a terrible crash at the bridge and a picture posted on social media indicates that the car is similar to Ivy's. Kurt knows that Callie is with Ivy.
Alternating with Kurt's narratives which occur mostly at the hospital are those of Callie and Ivy, beginning fourteen days prior to the accident which provide the backstory leading up to the accident.
Ivy has returned to Edenville with her alcoholic mother and her mother's boyfriend, Kevin. Ivy's life has been anything but stable. Her father left when she was three years old and her mother has been involved with many men and drinks a lot.
Ivy's friend, Callie, whom she describes as "shiny-penny Callie" still lives in Edenville with her mother and father and her baby brother, Cosmo. Her father is a history professor at the university and her mother is a successful children's author. Callie is a good girl who by her own accounts keeps her room tidy, does her homework and is "perfectly bone-crushingly normal". She feels she should be delighted with a baby in the house" and that at sixteen she should be able to deal with her mother having a new baby. But she's not. Callie is jealous.
When Ivy returns after leaving suddenly three years ago and not saying good-bye, Callie is both thrilled and upset. Ivy tells Callie that they lived in San Francisco where her mother tried to re-ignite her relationship with Ivy's dad and then moved to Kansas City where she met Kevin, a pot-bellied, well to do man whom Ivy finds disgusting. Ivy forces Callie to go for a run one morning and they meet Callie's friend, Kurt. outside a home near where Callie lives. Callie is puzzled because she knows Kurt lives in a fancy house outside of town. Ivy is immediately attracted to Kurt and Callie notices this attraction. Kurt invites the two girls to accompany him and Xander on his boat the following day. Ivy agrees but Callie knows her mom won't allow her to go.
After visiting her ailing grandmother, Callie approaches her mom about the boat trip but as soon as she learns that Ivy will be going, her mom refuses to allow Callie to go. Her mother tells Callie that she's always been "intoxicated" with Ivy and that her friendship with her was not good for her, causing her to dump her close friend Rebecca three years ago. Because of this, Callies mom decides to forbid her to see Ivy.
Ivy goes out with Kurt and Xander on the boat and the next day the two girls meet at a cafe. On her way to the cafe, Callie sees a ad for a job in an art studio and thinking how forward Ivy is, decides to apply. At the cafe Callie and Ivy make plans to double date that night but Callie, knowing her mother will never give her permission, sneaks out to Ivy's home.The two girls meet Kurt and Xander at a BEneath, a bar a few blocks from Callie's home and get drunk.
Soon Callie begins lying more and more to her mother so she can see Ivy. She sneaks out of the house to go with Ivy, Kurt and Xander on the boat and then one night to go to a party at Kurt's house. However, Callie's parent's discover her lie when she doesn't return home after the party and when her granny passes away the night of the party. At first her mother is furious about the party but after the funeral relents, telling Callie that perhaps she needs to be more open-minded. She agrees to allow Callie to see Ivy but expects her not to lie anymore.
When Ivy tries to get Callie to come to another party, Callie tells her she's not allowed to. She finally explains that her mother doesn't like Ivy after she saw what the girls were doing three years earlier. The two girls go shopping at a store and while Ivy is changing, Callie discovers that Ivy has been lying to her about events that have happened in her life while away in Kansas. This greatly upsets Callie but she accepts Ivy's explanation. The night of the party, Callie decides to slip out of the house and attend without her parents permission. Callie is confused about Ivy's feelings towards her, towards Kurt and believes that possibly Ivy feels that same towards her. Eventually the relationship between the three teens gradually descends into a toxic love triangle with all three not really understanding how they feel about each other.This leads to jealousy, anger and tragedy no one could have predicted.
Alice Kuipers keeps her readers guessing through the entire novel with narrations that seem to have one meaning only for the reader to discover that something very different was happening. For example, the reader believes that Xander and Kurt are at the party and head to the hospital to learn the fate of Ivy and Callie. In fact, this is not the case. Careful readers will quickly pick up on what is happening, others won't figure it out till the reveal at the end of the novel. The same is true for Callie and how she feels about Ivy. At first it seems like she's happy for the return of a long lost friend, but soon it becomes apparent that Callie's relationship with Ivy is very different from an ordinary friendship. The effect of these unreliable narrators is to build a sense of deepening mystery, creating a shocking ending to the story.
Characterization is particularly strong in The Death of Us. Both Ivy and Callie are deeply troubled girls who are struggling with significant changes in their family life, while also trying to determine their own identities. Ivy, who has tried to kill herself, struggles to maintain control in her life, exercising to excess and listening to esteem-building podcasts while attempting to avoid morphing into a copy of her manipulative and needy mother. The rage inside her eventually explodes as she confronts Kurt and Callie about their relationship. Callie, on the other hand, comes from a stable home where she has to fit into her parents image of a good girl. She never parties, does her homework and blends in. But Callie feels lost in a family focused on a toddler, her parents oblivious to her needs as a teenager. Her rebellion is ignited by the arrival of Ivy. Callie's mother really does know the truth about her daughter's relationship with Ivy but tries to pretend that things are normal. Of course the difference between the two girls is that Callie has a mother who really does care about her. When she tells her mother she is confused about who she is, her mother is patient and understanding.
Especially well portrayed is the complex relationship between the two girls. It is a relationship fraught with secrets; the secret of Ivy's mother attempting suicide and the secret of the two girls experimenting sexually. Both of these secrets affect their relationship. Callie told Ivy she has told no one but when the girls visit Callie's granny, the elderly woman lets slip she knows about Ivy's mom. The sexual experimentation is a confusing point for both girls with what happened obviously meaning much more to Callie than to Ivy who definitely likes boys. Neither girl understands the other; Ivy doesn't understand Callie's attraction to her to the point that she doesn't believe she's not interested in Kurt and Callie doesn't understand Ivy's distrust and dishonesty.
As Kuipers has stated about The Death of Us, "Starting a book with the end of a story, makes for difficult writing.." But Alice Kuipers succeeds brilliantly in her novel. It an interesting, well written novel from a favourite writer of mine.
The Death of Us by Alice Kuipers
Toronto: HarperTrophy Canada 2014