Charlie Price, a 12-year old boy who loves math and scavenger hunts, is trying to hold things together after his mother’s death from cancer. Sometimes it seems to be working: he’s back on the mathletes team and has some wonderful friends around him. When he answers a difficult math problem correctly, he has the feeling that some questions do actually have answers. But other times, when his dad is working late (again), and he and his sister Imogen try to make spaghetti like their mom used to (and fail rather spectacularly in the attempt) — it all seems to be falling apart.
Then he notices that Imogen is starting to behave rather oddly. She disappears during the middle of the day and doesn’t show up for scheduled activities. She seems to be tired all the time, and even quits theater — an activity that she used to live for. Charlie discovers her secret: she’s found a portal to an alternate reality where their mom is still alive. Charlie is blown away — they can spend time with their mom again! — what could be better? But soon he realizes that this seemingly perfect world hides a dark and dangerous secret of its own. After he spends time with this alternate-Mom, his real memories of his Mom start to disappear. Also, the photographs of himself and Imogen are fading from the real world — fading more and more quickly as they spend more and more time in the alternate world. Can he save himself and his sister before it’s too late?
This poignant book deals with one of the most difficult hypothetical situations that I can imagine — if you had the choice between a world that was real but filled with loss and grief or a world that wasn’t real but where you could be with a lost loved-one, which would you choose? The issues of grief and memory are handled in a beautiful and compelling way, and in a way that I think will be very accessible to its intended audience of young people. This book is definitely on the heavy side for middle grades fiction, but it’s big-hearted and genuine in its acknowledgement of the difficulty of grief and also the importance of holding on to life.
I found the magical realism elements in this book to be very compelling as well. It’s the sort of middle grades magical realism that I associate with books like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me — the supernatural elements are woven seamlessly and un-selfconsciously into the narrative flow of highly realistic fiction. The author uses these elements of magical realism to explore the landscape of grief in a way that also makes for an exciting and suspenseful story. The emotional journey is made through actions and choices in an alternate realm — not just locked up in someone’s head.
This is a beautiful book, but be prepared to “feel all the feels.” It’s about choosing life over grief. Choosing to make new memories rather than live in a world solely composed of past memories. There’s deep sadness but also hope. Grief and anger but also love and friendship. It’s a book that I think will stay with me for a long time.