Early Review: Nobody But Us by Kristin Halbrook

We gotta be hidden here in this new world we made. Just silence keeping all the shit of the real world away.

I rarely reflect on authorial intent when reading. I figure, once a book's in the wild, it's meaning is up to each reader's interpretation. 

However, Kristin Halbrook's debut is one of those rare books in which I actively sought out information about the author's vision for her book. Is Nobody But Us a cautionary tale? A star-crossed romance? A gritty depiction of the darkest side of the child welfare system?

I think readers will find each of those concepts in Nobody But Us, depending on what they want or hope to read, but I'm still unsure as to what the intention of this story may be.

Regardless, what I do know is that Nobody But Us is a strong debut, and a stark depiction of teens facing horrid circumstances which they're ill-equipped to handle.

Nobody But Us is told in alternating (and very distinct) perspectives from the points-of-view of WIll and Zoe. Will has just turned 18 and aged out of the foster care system. Now legally an adult,  Will hopes to escape his dead-end, hard-scrabble, small North Dakota town with his girlfriend. Zoe is younger, 15, and flees with WIll to escape her violent father. The pair sets out on a road trip, destined for Las Vegas where they hope to blend into the anonymity of the city and remake their lives.

Before I knew escape, life was something to be endured, passively. Now I hunger for it.

Except running from the past is a hard thing.

Zoe and Will run afoul of the law before they even bust out of town. Will severely beats Zoe's father who tries to stop his daughter from leaving. And, Will has a secret about the money he's brought along. 

Both Will and Zoe and broken, unhappy teens. It's easy to see how their relationship became so intense so quickly--they cling to one another because they have no one else. Naturally, this sort of attachment, that which is spurred on by loneliness and isolation, doesn't have the healthiest foundation.

Will is incredibly protective of Zoe. He wants to shelter her from everything and doesn't fully understand the line between caring and something unhealthy. 

We sit next to each other in the booth. Her leg presses against mine and I feel it in every bone of my body. I clear my throat and pick up the menu. Someday she’s gonna figure out what she does to me. Pretty soon I’m gonna let her know what she does to me.

Zoe Is a book smart girl, but she's been sheltered from the world and lives with intense fear, due to her father's abuse. Because of this, her decision-making and ability to communicate--or even understand--what she wants and how she feels is stunted, emotionally younger than her 15 years.

I want it to be always like this. Cars in ditches and tickling and kissing in the weeds because we can’t help ourselves. I never want us to be able to help ourselves. 

What struck me most about Will and Zoe's relationship is that they really don't know one another. When they take off for Vegas, they haven't actually been together very long. They are both hesitant about how to be together, because even though they've experienced terrible things, they've haven't lived the flip-side--good, solid connections with other people, so being together is just guesswork.

I always wonder about what she’s thinking, what she sees when she looks at me, how she feels when she’s with me. Her expressions and her actions don’t hide much, but I can’t help it. I want to know it all. Make sure I’m doing the right thing, saying the kind of stuff she needs to hear.

A feeling a dread pervades Nobody But Us, and unsurprisingly, the couple's ill-conceived escape plan rapidly unravels.

Will's inability--despite his best attempts--to control his emotions scares Zoe. The cracks in their plan (and it's a terrible, terrible plan of the sort that only teenagers could conceive) open up and the stakes get higher and higher and the consequences more dire.

Thanks to Zoe's inability to communicate what she needs and Will's tendency to overreact and respond inappropriately to conflict, a crime is committed which results in the two being on the run, and their dangerous road trip becomes an doomed escape attempt in which their criminal activity continues. 

Our love like this, grown while we committed crimes—it's going to destroy us.

Nobody But Us is not a happy book.

And the resolution for these characters isn't what I'd hoped--though it is what it should be. The thing that makes this novel distinctive is it's unfaltering look at a relationship that's not healthy. In the hands of a less-skilled storyteller, this could be yet another tired story romanticizing bad relationships.

Except, there's absolutely nothing romantic about Nobody But Us.

Instead, it's a story of desperation, of young people with nowhere to turn but toward one another. Their story is completely improbable on a number of levels (their unwavering belief that they can simply start over seems ridiculous to me as an adult who understands the logistics of the world), but that's also why the story works. Will and Zoe need to cling to hope that this improbable scenario will lead to a fresh start.

There's no redemption for these characters, and without treading into spoiler territory, I will say that while I hoped Zoe would grow up to be a strong, independent young woman, the ending is unflinching in staying true to her broken, naive characterization even when we revisit her months later. It saddened me, but also felt true.

It's unfortunate that some of the early marketing and reviews labeled Nobody But Us as "romantic" and "for fans of If I Stay." If a reader approached this novel as a read-alike for If I Stay, they would be disappointed. That novel contains a very strong theme around the idea of the transformative power of love.

That's not the case of Nobody But Us. Rather, this book peels back what happens when everyone--family, friends, school, "The System"--fails young people and their desperation throws them into situations they cannot handle.

It's heartbreaking. 

Buy it at Amazon / BN / Book Depository
Add it on Goodreads

FNL Character Rating: Becky Sproles prior to moving in with Billy and Mindi Riggins.

Nobody But Us will be released on January 29, 2013.

Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.

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