Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Million Miles Away by Lara Avery

A Million Miles Away is a weird story about a girl who assumes her twin sister's identity because she can't bring herself to tell her sister's boyfriend of her tragic unexpected death. The resulting hurt and chaos this brings into everyones lives

Seniors, Kelsey and Michelle Maxfield are identical twins, so identical in fact, that few people can tell them apart. But that's where the similarity ends. Michelle is a budding artist who studies hard and can speak French. Kelsey is a dancer, more interested in keg parties than school and who dreams of making the cheerleading squad at KU (University of Kansas).

At a keg party at their home, Kelsey sees Michelle's latest boyfriend, Peter who is a soldier due to ship out to Afghanistan the next day. The morning, at breakfast Kelsey meets Peter who at first thinks he's talking to Michelle. While waiting for Michelle he tells Kelsey they met outside a concert three months ago and are quite serious about each other.

After Michelle does not return from driving Peter to the airport, they learn that she has been killed in a car accident. After the funeral, Kelsey's friends, Gillian and Ingrid try to comfort her and offer her support telling her not to worry about school. Weeks after Michelle's death, Kelsey still is unable to express the tremendous grief she feels over the loss of her sister. Her parents meanwhile have volunteered to host a support group for people grieving the loss of a loved one. When a postcard from Peter arrives for Michelle, Kelsey drives to the army recruiting office to see if they can help her locate Peter. However, the woman is unable to help Kelsey who does not know Peter's last name nor the unit he's with. This entire experience leaves Kelsey shattered and she breaks down at home.

Kelsey spends the next few weeks managing to catch up on her homework with the help of her long time boyfriend, Davis.Kelsey plans to audition for the University of Kansas Rock Chalk Dancers in May. Meanwhile Kelsey's mother asks her to cancel Michelle's facebook. After sending off an email to facebook, Kelsey is stunned to see Peter appear on Michelle's Skype. The connection is bad and even though Kelsey tries to tell him who she is, he believes he's talking to Michelle. Before she can go much further in telling him that Michelle has died, the call drops. A week later, Kelsey takes a second call from Peter who believes he's talking to Michelle and asks why she wasn't on to take his call last night. Kelsey learns that Peter's family know he has a girlfriend but not her identity so there is no way they would know that Michelle has died. Unable to tell Peter who she really is, because he seems upset by what is happening on his tour of duty, Kelsey promises to write him. Believing that Michelle "would protect him, at least until she could find a way to let him down gently, she feels she can't tell him by text or email.

Soon after, Peter's letters begin arriving. Filled with details about life in Kunar Province and the other soldiers in Peter's company, the letter tells Kelsey how much Michelle means to Peter. Kesley makes several unsuccessful attempts to write a letter to Peter. A third call from Peter sees Kelsey continue to pass herself off as Michelle.  Through these calls she has met his best friends, Sam and Rooster.
Peter tells her "Everything you say to me about home is, like, nourishing. You get it? It's like each memory is a piece of food that I can eat --"  Faced with the comfort she can bring to Peter and how pretending to be Michelle makes the hurt she's feeling somehow less, Kelsey decides to continue her deception.

When the call ends, the contrast between the comfort she gives Peter and the pain of grief she hears from her parents support group makes Kelsey decide that she does not want Peter to experience that kind of pain. But how long can Kelsey continue the deception and at what cost to herself and to Peter?


A Million Miles Away is a story about a young woman who struggles to cope with the loss of her identical twin and to rediscover her own identity amid the pain and chaos she's feeling. At it's heart is a theme of identity.

Kelsey finds that Michelle's death has changed her irrevocably and that she's unable to move forward. As twins, both Michelle and Kelsey would be attending college next year. But with Michelle gone, Kelsey already recognizes that her death has changed her. "She wasn't herself. No matter how much she tried, she wasn't sure she ever would be herself again. The next phase in her life seemed impossible. It was impossible."

Kelsey feels her face, so identical to that of her dead sister, is a reminder to everyone around her, including her father, of Michelle's death."She was a reminder to everybody. She had no choice. People in the hallways, people on the sidewalk, people in the grocery store. Their eyes widened and they drew in breath...Michelle used to make people smile, not cringe."

When the art teacher, Mrs. Wallace asks Kelsey about how she is coping with her sister's death, Kelsey tells her "It's like, I had my opposite my whole life...So I knew exactly who I was. I knew who I was because I knew who I wasn't. And now she's gone." Mrs. Wallace reminds Kelsey that she has her whole life to figure out who she is. However, for Kelsey, pretending to be Michelle helps her cope with her own pain and makes her feel like moving forward in life. Also getting to know her sister better has the ulterior motive of aiding her in her deceit, even though she doesn't admit this to herself.

Kelsey not only pretends to be Michelle when she's talking online with Peter, she also begins to act as Michelle would - she takes Michelle's Art History class. When her friend Gillian discovers that Kelsey has not told Peter about Michelle's death, Kelsey tells herself "With Peter, I can pretend it never happened. And I like talking to him..." Gillian reminds Kelsey that she has a long time boyfriend as well, who also will be hurt to discover her carrying on a relationship with Peter. Eventually her deception leads to larger lies and bigger deceit when she goes to Paris to meet Peter and his friends, pretending she is Michelle. Peter's friend, Sam, does however see through Kelsey's deceit and reminds her that she needs to tell him. She also meets his family, pretending to be Michelle and eventually becomes intimate with Peter, also with Peter believing he is with Michelle. This all leads to the terrible confrontation between Peter and Kelsey when he finally returns home and the truth is revealed to him.

It takes Kelsey's mother to explain to her what she should have known all along, that what she did was selfish and wrong,even though as Kelsey explains, "I missed her...I really didn't mean to pretend to be her...It was mostly just wanting to be close to her again, you know? Even closer than I was when she was alive."

While it's understandable that Kelsey doesn't want to do anything that might endanger Peter while he's on his tour of duty in Afghanistan, it seems remarkable that she couldn't find some other way to notify Peter about what happened to her sister and his girlfriend. Especially after she learns his last name and that his sister has been trying to locate Michelle on Facebook. It was difficult to read this novel, suspending the belief that somehow this might have been handled better by Kelsey and trying not to focus on how immature and selfish she was. And the ending is completely predictable - Peter and Kelsey resume their relationship after a brief breakup. Because of course, Peter acknowledges that Kelsey kept him alive during his difficult tour, which while true, doesn't seem to make up for the incredible deception on Kelsey's part. He seems to have no problem forgiving her and is eager to resume the relationship with Kelsey, making one wonder just how much he really did care for Michelle.

Most of the other characters in A Million Miles Away are very underdeveloped and even insignificant. This includes Kelsey's friends, Gillian and Ingrid, her boyfriend of three years - Davis, and her parents who seem completely consumed by their involvement in their grief support group.

Overall, a strange twist using the familiar trope of identical twins assuming each others identities.

Book Details:

A Million Miles Away by Lara Avery
Boston: Little, Brown and Company 2015
306 pp.

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