book club: ‘history is all you left me’.

by Michael King

I pulled History is All You Left Me from the shelves of the Muncie Books-a-Million, drawn to read the back cover by my previous experience with author Adam Silvera. Committing himself to writing thoughtful queer stories for young adults, Silvera is not only willing to write about queerness honestly, but he also grapples with death, loss, grief –– topics we often imagine young adults would rather avoid considering.

History is told through the voice of Griffin, a young man living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and freshly navigating the unexpected death of his first boyfriend, Theo. Chapters alternate between his story following the loss of Theo and the story of how he and Theo fell in love ––  their ‘history,’ explored in the hopes of finding a means forward.

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Because Griffin is the narrator of this story, the reader remains intimately close to the journey his grief takes him on. Complicating his healing, of course, are a few factors –– Theo and Griffin broke up a year prior to Theo’s death, and Theo moved on with someone named Jackson, and Jackson is in town for Theo’s funeral. All Griffin’s narration is spoken directly to Theo, whom he imagines is still present, somehow.

Through Griffin’s lens, we meet Theo, a believer in puzzles and puns. A charismatic solver of riddles and interpreter of the world. We understand how Griffin lost himself in love with such a vibrant person, how the world following his loss feels a bit like a sky without its sun.

“People are complicated puzzles, always trying to piece together a complete picture, but sometimes we get it wrong and sometimes we’re left unfinished. Sometimes that’s for the best. Some pieces can’t be forced into a puzzle, or at least they shouldn’t be, because they won’t make sense.”

If I’m honest, some of History fell flat for me. Grief is a messy, non-linear process, but the plot (especially the present day) takes a few wild leaps, and a few big scenes felt melodramatic. Whenever characters reveal big secrets, the reaction to those revelations is operatic. Punches are thrown, streets are stormed into, secret flights across the country are taken. There are moments I wondered how much more honest the story might feel if, perhaps, there had been a little more restraint. A little more comfort with quiet.

Griffin’s head is a noisy place. He never simply shares what’s happening, but also analyzes how Theo might have reacted, considers what’s not been said. This isn’t an inaccurate portrayal of grief, and it probably speaks to the experience of living with OCD as well, but it can detract from the brilliance of the story.

Some of my struggle to enjoy the text, I think, may stem from being beyond the intended age group for the novel. My favorite Young Adult fiction doesn’t activate this feeling in me, but it’s a fair concession.

“But in them all, you and I are more than history. I have to believe these universes exist; it’s the only way to manage the suffering here. Alternate versions of me are perfectly happy with alternate versions of you, because you’re alive.”

One thing to be said for History is All You Left Me: It explores the mess that grief can bring out of us, particularly when we’re at our most broken. Griffin, without any knowledge of which direction to swim, is reckless with himself, making rash decisions regarding school, sex, friendships.

In college, I took a writing class where we were asked to consider what we ‘show’ and what we ‘tell.’ In History, Silvera ‘shows’ the mess and then ‘tells’ the discovery afterwards. Griffin, in bouts of clarity following his mistakes, is ready to write out the lessons for Theo.

“You’re always going to be my first favorite human. No one can steal that from you. But now I have to get it together and allow room for more favorite people, to trust that Wade and Jackson are worthy of their own crowns.”

By no means was History is All You Left Me a waste of my time; in fact, it broke my heart several times, and it made me consider my own patterns of grieving. It also fearlessly puts a lens on what young love can look like for gay men, and – through that – shows how universal themes of love, loss, grief, and letting go can be.