It’s been a while since I’ve managed to finish a book in less than twenty-four hours. Sure, I’ve finished books in a couple of days, but the last time I finished a book in less than a day was…well, when I was sixteen and having a pretty slow weekend. The book was called Vegan, Virgin, Valentine. It was interesting, but I don’t think I’ll be reading it again. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of book you just grow out of.
Hannah Moskowitz, though, has written a story that is impossible to put down. Seriously, I tried. Just like Teeth, Moskowitz has created a world full of angst and pain that’s also heart-warming and real and utterly stupendous.
Jonah McNab is our hero. His brother, Jesse, has the absolute worst food allergies I have ever heard of. He can go into anaphylaxis just by breathing in his allergens. Or by touching them. And he is allergic to almost everything. One of his many deadly allergens is milk, which makes being at home a real problem, as the boys have an eight-month-old baby brother, so milk is often left all over the place.
What makes this book so interesting is the way Moskowitz subverts expectations at every turn. The McNab brothers were raised in a Christian household. They aren’t to curse in the house and they are often asked if they’ve prayed that day. But the thing is, the family itself is everything but Christian. The parents are on the verge of divorce for one thing. Jonah himself says that his parents would be better off divorced. The parents use Jesse, Jonah, and Will as excuses to pick fights with each other, all the while ignoring the fact that there’s milk all over the house, and Jesse’s covered in hives and his throat’s closing up.
This then leads into another subverted expectation: the family hierarchy. Because the McNab parents are so preoccupied with each other and with Will, who hasn’t stopped screaming since he left the womb, Jonah takes care of Jesse. He calls and texts Jesse throughout the day, is almost obsessive when it comes to the cleanliness of the kitchen, and changes his own diet so that Jesse doesn’t feel left out. Only, Jonah is still just a teenage boy. He screws up. He uses Jesse’s blender to make himself a milkshake, messes up the kitchen, and causes one of Jesse’s reactions. He leaves Jesse alone, against his better judgment, just because Jesse told him he was fine. Jonah isn’t perfect. He’s human. In fact, he’s broken.
The reason this book is called Break is because Jonah has developed a theory. You see, when you break a bone, it heals back stronger than it was before. So, by Jonah’s reckoning, if he breaks all of his bones, he will heal back stronger than before. Because he is the strong one in his family. The one who’s always there to pick up the slack. We spend the whole book thinking Jonah is doing this for himself. Not for selfish reasons, but because he wants to be a better, stronger, harder person than he is so that he can take better care of his brothers. But then, after chapters of alluding to Jonah’s interest in Confucianism, we get an explanation that breaks your heart:
“Okay. But. If our family really is the smallest unit, then every time Jesse’s sick, we’re all sick. His pain is our pain. So if he can’t get better…” I wave my broken wrist. “I’m the next best thing. I get hurt, and I heal. And I get stronger. And my strength is Mom’s strength. Is Dad’s strength. Is Jesse’s strength.”
Jonah isn’t putting himself through the pain of breaking his bones for himself, but for all of his family. Because, according to Confucianism, the family is the smallest unit of measurement. It can’t be divided. So whatever happens to one member, happens to all of the members. So when Jonah heals back, stronger than ever, so does his family. Jonah McNab, you beautiful, broken man.
Jonah is such the typical teenage boy when it comes to his not-girlfriend, Charlotte. They hang out, flirt, kiss, feel each other up, but they aren’t actually dating. She doesn’t love him and he doesn’t love her. Or he thinks he doesn’t. In the final pages of the book, we see Jonah realise that he’s in love with this stunning girl who wears fresh flowers in her hair. Only, it may have come a little too late.
His best friend, Naomi, also happens to be his partner in crime. When we meet Jonah, Naomi is right beside him, filming Jonah as he falls off his skateboard in order to add a few more broken bones to his tally. I don’t know about you, but I find this odd. I mean, Jonah is destroying himself for some wild philosophy. My first thought, if I were in that situation, wouldn’t be to film Jonah’s breaks. But then, at about the halfway mark, we get Naomi’s side of the story:
“Nom, what the hell? What do you get from this?”
“I don’t want to tell you, it’s stupid.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“You’re going for it, man.” She shrugs. “You’re putting your all into something. It’s…um, kind of inspiring?”
“It’s self-torture. Not exactly inspiring. Or even interesting.”
“It’s not self torture. Don’t belittle it like that.” She shakes her head. Don’t pretend that’s why you’re doing it. You want to get stronger. You want to be a better person.”
Now, how’s that? I would probably react more like Charlotte, the not-girlfriend and [SPOILERS] go straight to the authorities. I would want to help, but have no idea where to start. So I would go to the person I thought could help. Naomi, though, sees something in Jonah that helps her to become a better person. Twisted, I know, but it gets worse.
Like I said, Charlotte dobs Jonah in for breaking and he gets sent to a care home for “evaluation”. He’s having a hard day in the home when the volunteer who comes around to take his vitals twice a day happens in, and Jonah gives her the explanation for why he “breaks”. Only thing is, the other teenagers in the care home hear his gorgeous, twisted logic. [SPOILERS] And they start to “break” as well. It gets to the point that Jonah gets put in isolation because the care staff think Jonah is the one breaking the other patients.
This is where things get horrible. Because we see Jonah go a little nuts.
You may argue that Jonah was crazy the entire time, but he was in control of himself. He was choosing the way he acted. It may not have made sense to anyone but him and Naomi and his friends in the care home, but there was a kind of reasoning. At the end, when the reader is 99% sure that Jonah is suffering from osteomyelitis (an infection that gets into the bone, most often when you’ve had a break), he shuts down. Logic flies out the window and Jonah gives into the panic that he hasn’t let himself feel for the entirety of the book. Maybe even the entirety of Jesse’s life:
“I don’t really know what’s going to happen next,” I say. I don’t know if I’m going to get septic. I don’t know if they’re going to amputate my hand. I don’t know if I’m crazy. Or if I’m going to die. Or if Jesse’s going to die. Or when.
I keep walking and walking.
This brings me to the biggest subversion of all. Jesse is the one who’s sick, right? But he hits the gym, eats right (well, what choice does he have?), and is the stronger brother. In the final chapter we find out [SPOILERS] that it was Jesse who took Jonah to the hospital after his mental “break”. Jesse literally picked him up off the street, Jonah and Will because Jonah had taken Will with him when he left the house that fateful afternoon, put both boys in the car, and got Jonah to the ER. I’m not going to give you that scene. Instead, I’m going to give you a different one. One that comes after Jonah has broken eight of his toes with a hammer and is waiting for them to heal. For the other one, you’ll just have to buy the book:
“You could not pick me up with one arm.”
“Hell yeah, I could.” He grabs me around the waist, under the sling, and lifts me a full foot off the ground. “Hurting your ribs?”
“Uh-uh. Holy shit, you’re strong.” I take the ball from him, balance it in my one hand, and shoot. “Score.”
“Yep. Putting you down. Watch your toes, okay?”
Not only is Jesse demonstrating his physical strength in this scene, but also his ability to take care of his older, broken brother. This was a beautiful scene between two brothers. Two brothers that need each other immensely. They’re a two person army.
I loved everything about this book. There is absolutely nothing I can pick on. No flaws I can think of. Even the fact that Moskowitz’s descriptions of Jonah’s antics made my fingers and toes curl was perfect. This is YA fiction at its finest. And this is Moskowitz’s debut novel. That she wrote in high school. Don’t believe me? Check her bio:
There is nothing left to say except: