Book Review: The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab

Caro and her much older sister Hannah have never been close.  It didn’t help that Hannah left home eight years ago to become a nun (like, an actual nun), and Caro barely remembers her.  When Caro’s parents announce that Hannah is moving home and leaving the Church, Caro feels as though her life has been blown apart.  Hannah is a stranger in their home, and her clearly haunted persona changes the feel of the family’s home.  Caro and Hannah struggle to reconnect, and Caro struggles with Hannah’s unwillingness to talk about her life or her past.

Anna Jarzab’s contemplative novel about family, faith, and finding yourself is a character-driven novel full of smart, beautiful prose and authentic characters.  It’s a standout YA novel for the year and is one that is likely to resonate with readers who like their novels full of complex characters and no easy answers.

Jarzab’s authentic characters starts with narrator Caro, who is as complex a heroine as there ever was.  Upon the return of her sister, Caro is confused, angry, and hurt.  She lashes out as a result, constantly fighting with her parents, hurting Hannah’s feelings, and lying to her friends.  She is deeply flawed and yet still very likable, and that in itself is testament to Jarzab’s strong writing.

Accolades should be given to the author for creating such fully realized adult characters in Caro’s world, too.  A rarity in YA literature, both of Caro’s parents are authentic, developed, and flawed (but clearly loving).  So too is Father Bob, a priest who Caro confides in.

The novel tackles some big subjects, including faith, religion, loss, and grief, but it never feels too big or too much for the story.  Much of this is due to Jarzab’s superb writing, which handles the issues with grace and delicacy, never giving the characters or the readers the easy answers.

There are some minor weak points.  At times, Caro’s love interest Pavel feels like a plot device.  A few times, it feels as though Caro’s parents’ inability to communicate is a little too convenient, but these moments are minor, and most readers will be more than willing to overlook them.

In truth, the novel felt a little overlong to this reader, but that won’t be the case for everyone.  There were moments where the story became too bogged down in Caro’s everyday school life.  Some of the tertiary plot points, including Caro’s problems with an ex-boyfriend, felt like they could have been excised to help move the story along.  Even so, the pace is steady and gripping, and many readers won’t take issue with the novel’s length at all.

Jarzab’s compelling, contemplative novel about faith, religion, grief, loss, and family packs an emotional punch.  It’s a lengthy novel that’s likely to appeal to more mature YA audiences, but that doesn’t mean that younger readers won’t also enjoy this one, especially if they’re particularly savvy.  Authentic, emotionally raw, and very well worth the 400-plus page count.

Recommended.

The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab. Delacorte Books for Young Readers: 2012. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley. Read for 2012 Cybils Round 1 Panel.

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