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Review of Phantom Limbs

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Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner

The premise: How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.

Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.

My Review: 4/5

This book was emotional, in a way many others aspire to be, but ultimately fail to achieve. It is honest about loss and trauma– both in what it takes to move forward and instances where time doesn’t heal all wounds.

The events themselves– from that which costed Dara her arm to the main character Otis’s brothers death– are not cut-and-dry. They are viewed differently by different people. Like in life, we don’t know exactly what happened at first, and indeed maybe never will know everything. To me, this not only felt realistic but also helped with the tension– I finished the whole book in a few hours.

The point of view was obviously male, especially because of the humor and focus Otis has. I’m a fan of YA from a male perspective, not only because of the overall lack of these books, but also as a way to encourage male readership. (Also, as we know with the rise in demand for LGBTQ and diverse books, its also important to have representation of half of the population, ie men. Not that these are the same, just that the concept of representation is similar). Having said this, some of the comments/observations were unnecessarily vulgar and while some vulgarity encompasses the lives of teenagers (and teenage boys) it was a little excessive in my view.

Other things I would have liked to be different include– I didn’t really like the way Otis idolized Meg. That his not moving on and their past history entitled him to flirt with Meg when she has a boyfriend (THIS IS NOT OKAY– YA NEEDS TO STOP PROMOTING THIS KIND OF BEHAVIOR AS ROMANTIC). That Otis views Meg as perfect, and that he sees himself as better for her because he knows things about her like her full name (um, good for you, Otis? A big part of this story is that you don’t know a lot of the things that she went through, which is definitely more important than her full name). Dara is right in many instances about Otis’s view of Meg– even if Meg had her own issues to deal with, she walked away and Dara was there for Otis. (Not that Dara and Otis need to/should be together, just that Meg and Otis’s relationship maybe isn’t the best).

I appreciated that Dara was not straight, but the book seems to need to classify her (which I have some problems with). Also, while I liked the emotion in the book and the premise, there was something lacking for me, although I can’t put my finger on it (hence 4 and not 5 stars).

*spoilers* Some random things I am thankful for– there is no cheating (at least not physically– it would have been better if there wasn’t emotional cheating as well). That Otis does not go to the Olympic trials just based on “trying hard” and “putting in work” because I think many books emphasize this, enforcing the idea that not being good at something reflects an individual failure (to work hard enough, try hard enough, etc) and thus everyone who succeeds deserves it. (Insert rant about meritocracy-based societies and the damage it does on the human psyche. Ok, rant over.)

I liked the ending too– it wasn’t too happy or optimistic to be cliche but was happy enough to merit the journey through the story and offer hope. I might have liked a bit more closure for Dara and Otis’s parents, but it’s not the end of the world, in my view, to not have them. *spoilers*

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