In Jenny Hubbard’s 2014 novel “And We Stay,” the author attempts to explore a teenager’s mind after a tragic loss: the untimely death of her high school boyfriend. After suffering from severe depression and unsure what else she can do, Emily Beam, the protagonist of the novel, ships off to an all girl’s boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts. Once she’s there, Emily becomes enamored with another Emily — Emily Dickinson. Inspired by the poet, Emily Beam spends her first year at boarding school writing secret poems and harboring an even bigger secret. Unfortunately for Emily Beam, both secrets become far too much to handle.
While browsing the young adult section of our local Jones Library, I came across a book with a beautiful cover of a girl standing in the snow. Since I have a strong tendency to choose books based on their covers, I was immediately drawn in. After a quick scan of the back cover, the words “Amherst, Massachusetts” popped out at me, and I was hooked. Unfortunately while this book could have been beautiful, and sometimes it was, overall I found it both dry and pretentious.
I had numerous issues with the book. When I first began reading “And We Stay,” I was immediately uncomfortable with the third-person present narration style. Hubbard’s narration is stilted, and it was difficult to connect, like or even care about any of the characters. Her writing is simply too awkward to read.
For some reason the book also makes a big deal out of being set in 1995, which is fine and dandy, but honestly there is no reason why it couldn’t be set in present day. I don’t quite understand why Hubbard feels the need to mark the date of every single poem Emily Beam writes because ultimately, it’s not pertinent to the story. Nothing in the way the girls speak or dress immediately screams “90s.” By making note of the year, Hubbard takes away the timelessness that the novel could have had.
I’ve read Jenny Hubbard’s other novel, “Paper Covers Rock,” which also features Hubbard’s heavily poetic prose style, so you could say I’m used to it. However, with this book I found a real problem with her style. Whereas I could wrap my head around the overly dramatic poetic prowess of the troubled protagonist in “Paper Covers Rock,” Emily Beam’s poetry comes off as annoying. “Paper Covers Rock” is told in the first person, so I know that all of the rosy language is the character’s. In “And We Stay,” all of the flowery language, except for the poems that Emily writes, is the narrator’s. While this kind of purple prose may work for a first-person narrator, it feels clichéd and pretentious in the third person. For example, take this sentence: “She leaves them in the earth, her eyes hot with tears, a new poem burning itself all the way down her feet.” The writing might seem poetic at first, but when the entire novel is bogged down with self-conscious attempts at poetry, the result isn’t great. I honestly just wanted “And We Stay” to get to the point.
I also had an issue with the way in which the characters spoke to each other, particularly the conversations between Emily and K.T. , Emily’s best friend at the school. Perhaps this is meant to be where the whole 90s time period shows itself, but I found the way the characters spoke off-putting in the sense that there seemed to be a joke that I was missing out on every time.
The main plot, which concerns Emily’s relationship with her late boyfriend Paul, is also left hanging. The supposed twist that happens isn’t surprising at all and there isn’t enough focus on the problem itself. Of course, this would be OK if Emily actually grew as a person and, in doing so, left the past behind her, but I’m not sure she grows at all.
My final issue with the book was the Emily Dickinson plot line. I see the connections between both of the Emilys, but Hubbard never fully justifies the connection. What bothered me the most about the whole plot was that there seemed to be some type of half-hearted attempt at a supernatural plotline. Unfortunately this part of the plot is never really fleshed out, leaving me with many questions that went unanswered.
This book, to put it bluntly, was boring. The plot twist to Emily and Paul’s story is not shocking, I’m still cloudy on why and how he killed himself, and the writing is far too dense and stilted to digest comfortably, making the less than 250-page work seem like it takes a lifetime to read. The bottom line is that if you want to read beautiful prose coupled with a well executed plot, then look elsewhere.