What do you do when you think the person you love the most is about to make a terrible decision?
And what's more devastating: discovering what she's done or realizing you don't know her as well as you think you do?
The most important person in Nell's life is her older sister, Layla. Less than 2 years apart, the girls are thick as thieves - or, at least, they were. When Nell begins her freshman year of high school, she is excited to be sharing the halls with her best friend, Felix, and her awesome sister, who's a junior. But gradually, it becomes clear to Nell that Layla's hiding something and is spending time with someone she doesn't want Nell or anyone else to know about - and, much to Nell's surprise, it's someone she knows, too.
Nell doesn't know what to do. She can't imagine talking to either of her long-divorced parents about what's happening with her sister -- she's much closer to Layla than either of her parents, and she definitely doesn't want to push her sister away or violate Layla's trust. But Layla's not around much, and when she is, she's not in the mood for heart-to-heart conversations with her little sis. Nell can't tell Felix what's happening, either, because she feels like it's not her secret to tell, and she can't be disloyal to her sister, plus she doesn't want to burden Felix, who has more serious things going on in his household right now. More than anything, Nell wants Layla to return to who she used to be, the role model she looked up to, the happy, dynamic Golden girl who willingly shared her secrets, her laughter, and her life with her little sister instead of keeping her at arm's length.
Nell never minded living in her sister's shadow. She was never jealous of her sister's personality or athleticism; she accepted early on that Layla was the superior Golden, stronger, shinier, more outgoing - that's how Nell always saw her, perfect, up on a pedestal - and since their parents didn't outright compare them and Layla never called herself better than Nell, the younger girl was content with who she was. After all, the girls were so close that they were "Nellayla." No one and nothing could break their bond. The only thing that bugged Nell was when her sister or parents treated her like a baby, like she wasn't mature enough to understand what was going on, or she wasn't old enough to participate in something.
Nell cannot imagine something major happening in her life without telling her sister about it -- but she doesn't know if Layla would say the same thing about her. When did that change, and why? In the words of Bess Rogers, "It's hard to see the shift when you're so close." (1) Though Nell has a crush and other entanglements in the book, her true heartache comes from her sister, from this strange space that's developed between them. When Nell's suspicions are confirmed, when she learns for sure what's going on with Layla, she has to decide what's more important: keeping her sister's secret (and her trust) or making sure she's safe and sound.
Layla, you know I'd happily lie for you to save your life, or to fix your life, but it's a different story entirely to lie about something that I believe is ruining your life.
We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt employs a unique and effective technique: Nell, narrating in first person, largely uses "you" when thinking about her sister, reliving memories from their childhood or considering things she wishes she could say to her:
You were so much a part of me I thought we shared a name until you told me: "I am Layla," and you tapped your chest, then reached out to touch mine. "You are Nell."
What divides us is clear to the world around us but has always been murky to me.
When alone, Nell often considers Duncan and Parker Creed, a pair of brothers she knew whose lives ended tragically - and separately, though Nell thinks they were clearly connected. If you lost a peer at a young age, you will understand how Nell feels when she says:
If Duncan and Parker Creed were still alive, they'd be eighteen and twenty years old. [...] To me they will always be fourteen and sixteen, and it's the strangest thing in the world that I'm older now than Duncan and almost as old as Parker.
The ways in which the boys left this world were sudden and scary, so even though they weren't close friends of Nell's, their deaths left indelible marks on her. She allows the thought of the Creed brothers to haunt her in a beautifully lyrical way, without ever being supernatural or a cause for concern; instead, she treats them like a sounding board, and their loyalty and perceived closeness parallels that of the Golden sisters.
You know that poster in the science lab? Albert Einstein with the quote, The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once. I'm not sure Einstein actually said this - maybe it just looks good under a picture of him with his insane hair - but I wanted to tell Einstein that sometimes time is of no use.
Everything in the world was happening at once. Every clock was ticking. Every radio station was playing. Someone has turned up the speed on the treadmill while I was still trying to walk.
The way the book begins, the way the book ends: beautiful bookends. And how Reinhardt fills what happens in-between, and her choice to tell this story from Nell's point-of-view - memorable and remarkable, how she reveals the complexities of something which seems so simple, something so many of us take for granted: love. Unconditionally.
We Are the Goldens is about the promises we make and break - promises we make to ourselves, to our loved ones, whether those promises are expressed in words or actions or simply in thoughts, because thoughts have a power all their own. It's about worries and questions and answers, the answers we didn't want but got anyway, and the answers we never get, ever. This book has love and loyalty and art and literature and a play and a party and soccer and stains and disappointments and tears and fiction and truth and windows and views and performances and breath and silence and support.
I wanted to feel without thinking. Sleep without dreaming. I wanted to twinkle underwater like the lights of the city.
(1) Bess Rogers is a singer-songwriter whose music, words, and voice I greatly enjoy. The lyrics "It's hard to see the shift when you're so close" come from her song Brick by Brick, which appears on her album Out of the Ocean. I could listen to that album every single day and never tire of it.
Related posts at Bildungsroman:
Interview: Dana Reinhardt
Book Review: A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt
Book Review: The Things a Brother Knows by Dana Reinhardt
Booklist: Tough Issues for Teens
Learn more about Dana Reinhardt and her books at http://www.danareinhardt.net