BOOK REVIEW: “You Are the Everything” by Karen Rivers

With the exception of some poems and a few fanfics with song lyrics for titles, I have rarely encountered the second person used well and never within the context of a full-length novel. It’s a risky style to use for such an extended block of text, because it requires that the author be truly adept at communicating the interiority of a character without using “I” statements, and that the reader finds said character compelling enough that they are willing to accept a direct overlapping of identity with them. “You,” the reader, “stands in for “I,” the protagonist, and so both the reader and the protagonist are the recipients of the writer’s emotional twists and turns. It’s disorienting in the extreme, and it’s a testament to the strength of Karen Rivers’ writing that You Are the Everything, which takes place entirely in the second person (and present tense), that you as the reader understand the disorientation as an effect of the writing style as well as the machinations of the plot and the unique idiosyncrasies of the protagonist.
Elyse Schmidt, said protagonist, a high school wallflower, is artistic, anxious, awkward, shy, and beset by arthritis and hypochondria. She’s also best friends with the outgoing Kath, who comes across as both remote and incredibly cool, counts Benedict Cumberbatch as her celebrity crush (a classic 2010s teen move), and dreams of one day moving to Wyoming and riding horses. Elyse Schmidt is also completely in love with her high school classmate, the popular, handsome Josh Harris. That’s not a reflection of a lack of development in Elyse’s character that she is so defined by her crush—she’d be the first to tell you that so much of who she is is her love for Josh Harris. (While not paired with a bullying facade, the depth of obsession is reminiscent of Helga’s feelings for Arnold in Hey Arnold.) He’s always the discrete unit of perfection that is “Josh Harris”—never just “Josh”—and Elyse resigns herself to drawing cartoons of them attending a 1980s-themed prom and imagining their incredible love story. It’s just her luck that on the one day she gets to spend time with Josh Harris—they’re seatmates on an international school trip flight—is the day that the plane they’re on goes down, leaving Josh Harris and Elyse as the only two survivors.

After the crash, we cut to Elyse’s reconstructed life, where all of her wildest dreams have somehow come true. With the money from the airline settlement, Elyse and her family move to Wyoming, where Elyse can ride horses and gaze into the wide, endless sky as much as she likes, and with the trauma of surviving the crash bonding her and Josh Harris, they are in Wyoming together, deeply in love, just as Elyse always has wished. You Are the Everything kicks into gear at this point, with the first eighty or so pages on the plane functioning as a prologue and foreshadowing. Elyse just wants to enjoy her new life, where she’s somehow managed to get what she wants most, but she consistently loses the thread as memories of her life before the crash intrude upon her happiness, dissolving the lines between what is real, what is remembered, and what is merely a reflection of wishful thinking.

It’s here that Rivers’ use of second person is just so incredibly effective, and it works in tandem with one of the finest literary depictions of anxiety that I have ever read—I’d say it’s in the league of Eleanor from Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Second person is the best way, frankly, to convey how much Elyse is in her own head all the time and yet scrutinizing herself simultaneously—how she is constantly arguing and admonishing and dialoguing with herself, as well as reflecting her trauma. It’s as if she’s floating above herself like the ghosts of her friends that haunt her, telling herself how to feel, how to act, how to react. Indeed, following along with Rivers’ narrative means that you experience a sort of transference—Elyse’s combination of circular thought patterns and consistent intrusive thoughts start to resonate deeply, as do the periods of dissociation that rupture through the narrative as her perfect life with Josh Harris is interrupted by unwanted snippets of memory of the day of the crash.

Perhaps Karen Rivers is too skilled at making you feel every single thought and emotion that flit across and smash together inside Elyse’s mind, because You Are the Everything is certainly not an easy read. It’s emotionally exhausting being inside Elyse’s mind, and the gradual suspicion that something isn’t quite right in beautiful Wyoming starts to creep up on you early on and never lets go until the dramatic, heart-sinking conclusion. And yet for readers looking for a little angst in their YA, a sympathetic and knowing depiction of thought patterns of mental illness, or proof that the second person absolutely can be done well, You Are the Everything is a strong recommendation.