Vivian, Siobhan. The Last Boy and Girl in the World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Siobhan Vivian’s The Last Boy and Girl in the World follows protagonist Keeley Hewitt through the final days of her junior year of high school - first love, increasingly unstable friendships, and a sinking town - as in literally going under water. The flooding of Aberdeen, a working-class community with deep roots in its place by the river, means the upheaval of its entire population. For Keeley’s father, the urge to combat inexplainable politics awakens him from the stupor he has settled into since his accident, and he becomes the leader of the “Reservoir Resistance.” Keeley, who is heartened by her father’s fervor, commits to making the best of a difficult situation. She utilizes her sense of humor and outlandish antics to cheer up her friends, as well as obtain the affections of the popular, athletic, senior-class clown that she’s been crushing on since middle school. However, despite the secret parties, cancelled school, and distracted adults, more than Keeley’s hometown begins to drown.
I have recently started reading Goodreads reviews of books I have finished, which I should probably stop doing because it always ends up annoying and frustrating me, but I also find it interesting to see what people enjoy and dislike about novels. In this case, one reader, who initially liked Keeley, ended up disliking her for becoming “such a selfish brat.” The reader expressed that she hated the choices Keeley makes, so much so that she struggled to finish the book. Now, for me, I find Keeley’s proclivity to make bad choices endearing and real. I find it difficult to be so self-righteous as to pretend that people (especially teens, but also 31-year-old bloggers) do not, and often, make mistakes. After Keeley’s father meets with Mayor Aversano, when Keeley’s world view finally comes crashing down, her father says that he thought “things would work out differently,” and it “broke [Keeley’s] heart. Because he wasn’t a bad person. Just like [she] wasn’t a bad person. So how did [they] both screw up so badly?” (398). This is the core of the matter - Keeley is not a bad person, nor is her father. It is easy to be misled, to forget varying viewpoints, when fighting for a cause or a feeling. The true test of character is not that Keeley screws up, but that she eventually sees the error of her ways, learns, and grows. And these things she does. As she’s unpacking from her move, Keeley says, “I was a different person. I couldn’t say a better person, but someone who couldn’t ignore their shortcomings” (404). She finally realizes that “instead of fixing the problems, [she] deflected and distracted” (407). Individuals cope with tragedy differently, but people of all ages experience denial and/or misinterpreting situations. My favorite professor once gave me this metaphor - you’re in a speeding car with the top down; you can’t see what is ahead of you because it is too far in the distance; you can’t see what is directly beside you because it’s a blur as you race by; only when you look behind you, do objects take shape and make sense - we cannot see the future, the present is happening too fast to be clear, only the past can be interpreted and given meaning. The Last Boy and Girl in the World highlights this ideology - Keeley is too caught up in the present to really see the consequences of her behavior; that doesn’t necessarily excuse her, but it does make her human.
In Keeley’s defense, a smile always helps, even in the face of disaster. When she has her final goodbye with Jesse, she has already realized that Levi was right when he says, “not everything should be turned into a good time… you’re trying to pretend it isn’t happening” (291-2). Even so, Keeley appreciates that Jesse ends their relationship with a joke; she says, “it really was easier that way. It also immediately validated my choice to let him go, because I suddenly wasn’t interested in easy anymore” (385). It is not a crime to feel moments of pleasure in the presence of misfortune, but Keeley finally understands that it is not productive to mask uncomfortable emotions, such as pain, confusion, sadness, with humor. When I think of Keeley’s experiences, lyrics from The Decemberists’ “Down By The Water” come to mind - “the season rubs me wrong/the summer swells anon/so knock me down, tear me up/but I would bear it all broken just to fill my cup/down by the water/down by the old main drag.” She allows the events to completely knock her down; she bears a broken friendship with Morgan and a missed true love - all consequences of her wanting to have her time, wanting to fill her cup with what she thought was love with Jesse and some laughs. However, it is clear to the reader from the moment that Jesse hip-checks Keeley at Spring Formal that he is not going to be the one, and it’s not surprising that, with Levi’s constant lurking, he is the opportunity to which she is blind. Furthemore, her laughs gradually become more spiteful and distance her from the people she loves, rather than draw her closer to them. When Keeley finally stops laughing, she starts “caring for [herself]” and begins putting “one foot in front of the other and find[s] a way to keep going” (406). She is able to move on, still cherishing her past life in Aberdeen, but focused on the possibilities of the future.
The Last Boy and Girl in the World is enjoyable realistic fiction; the novel encourages readers to reevaluate their perceptions and actions, to consider their behavior in times of duress, and remember the future’s uncertainty. The novel’s conclusion did evoke some teary eyes as Keeley comes to terms with the realization that life is challenging, that our choices are hardly ever easy, and that relationships fluctuate and evolve. Read it; it doesn’t disappoint.