Everyone will experience grief at some point; it’s an inevitable part of being alive. The tricky thing about it is that grief can take many forms, and not everyone grieves the loss of a loved one the same way. Brenda Rufener’s Since We Last Spoke is all about the way two families are mourning the deaths of their eldest children and the many ways they handle the pain—both constructive and destructive.
Aggi Frank and Max Granger have lived next door to each other their entire lives, and on the night they finally confess their love to each other, their older siblings are in a crash that kills Max’s brother. Ten days later, Aggi’s sister, bereft with guilt, kills herself. From there, the families, once best friends, turn on each other, so much so that legal actions are taken and a restraining order is put in place. A year later, Max and Aggi may as well be strangers, but it’s getting harder and harder for them to be kept apart.
Brenda Rufener clearly did her research on grief, and that proves to be her strong suit. Aggi’s house is in shambles, as is her family: her father finds solace in alcohol and vehemently blaming Max’s family; her mother dully floats around and can hardly function at work; and her younger sister, Grace, is in the care of their mother’s boss until things settle down. Grief is very personal, and each member of Aggi’s family demonstrates a different facet of loss. Grace especially tugs at the heartstrings, since her feelings are a little harder to sort out. It’s important to remember that while she seems mature, she’s still only 10 years old, and even though she’s away from her house a lot of the time, she still comes home to an emotionally charged atmosphere that’s not good for anyone. Aggi’s struggle to reconnect with her sister and shield her from their father’s temper is poignant and definitely gave me major feels while reading.
That, unfortunately, is where my praise for this book ends. While the premise is interesting, there’s not much in terms of plot. Most of the story is told internally from Aggi and Max’s perspectives, and while they’re certainly not terrible protagonists to follow around, they’re not the most fascinating. They often are stuck in repeating the same thoughts over and over about their siblings’ deaths and how they wish they could talk to each other, all without actually making any moves to do so. Max tries stalking Aggi to her job at a university to watch her under the guise of getting exercise, and this was established as romantic and pining when I found it downright creepy.
The main plot may have been at a standstill for most of the book, but Rufener tries to liven it up by injecting humor into the more serious moments. I’m all for lightening the mood when discussing heavy topics, but the way it’s presented just felt very forced and unnatural. The side characters are supposed to give us a break from the sullen tone, but save for Grace, they also come off as bland and not very interesting people. Max’s best friend Henry has not one, but two subplots going on—one dealing with his abusive family and the other with an insta-love connection he has with a college girl—and both are resolved fairly quickly, and I honestly thought I’d skipped a few pages on accident while reading because it felt like something was missing.
And really, that’s the problem I have with this entire story: it doesn’t have any heart. Rufener knows how to write suffering characters, but she doesn’t know what to do with them when it’s time for them to actually develop and grow as people. No one’s changed by the time the book is over, even though we’re told that they have—just like we’ve been told every other important thing thus far instead of shown. The very end honestly reads like a Lifetime movie, with the climax not being too exciting and everything being wrapped up sloppily with too many questions left unanswered. Characters need time to grow and change over the course of a novel, and without that aspect, we’re stuck with half-baked ideas and uninteresting people. I would have preferred to feel something—anything—for them, but aside from Grace, I just didn’t have any emotional attachment to anyone. And that, somehow, is even more sad than actively hating them.
I can appreciate what Rufener was trying to do with Since We Last Spoke. If anything, it would have made a great middle-grade story if it had centered on Grace and her subplot. But that one thing done right doesn’t make up for the rest of the dreariness that permeates this novel. A story about grief meant for young adults is such an important, needed addition to contemporary lit. This, unfortunately, doesn’t fit the bill.
Since We Last Spoke was published on April 2, 2019.