Author: Lisa J. Lawrence
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
My Rating: 4/5 stars
Contemporary is usually such a hard genre for me to get into, so I wasn’t expecting too much going into Rodent–especially with that title, yikes–but this book was a pleasant surprise! It was exaaactly what I needed.
I happened upon it on Goodreads and after reading the description followed by a few wonderful reviews, I ordered a copy. Never did I expect to love it so much–especially for an author’s debut. It was one of those books that I planned to only read a few chapters of before bed, but then ended up staying up in order to finish it–love when that happens!
So. The story.
Sixteen-year-old Isabelle Bennett is struggling to keep her head above water. On her very first day at Glenn Eastbeck High School, she makes some powerful enemies who are ready to make her life a living hell. Except, her life already kind of is–a living hell. I mean, navigating high school is tough enough without having to look after your two younger siblings, work at a crappy convenience store, scraping pennies together, and ensure that your alcoholic, single mother keeps it together for her new job, so you won’t be put out on the streets and have to move for the umpteenth time.
But in Isabelle’s family, she is the adult figure. She is the one whom Evan, her younger brother, crawls into bed with when he’s scared or lonely. She is the one who gets up everyday and coerces her mother into getting ready for work, or calls in sick for her on the impossible days when she just can’t manage it. She is the one who makes sure her siblings get fed; she picks them up and drops them off at school/daycare. She is the one who always drops everything and puts her siblings’ needs before her own, even if she loathes the responsibility of it all and is close to reaching her breaking point.
“I know one thing tonight, with Evan’s hair against my cheek and Maisie waiting for me to feed her: I’ve had enough of the wooden chairs, concrete floors, suitcases and bedbugs. The lying, laundry, excuses, hunger, dirt and piss. My fingers tremble as I touch Evan’s hair. I’ve had enough, and I’m getting out.”
This book is harsh–Isabelle’s jarring thoughts have no filter, and no matter how severe they are, it’s hard not to agree with her. It’s hard not to be infuriated by her mother’s irresponsible lack of parenting and constant disappointments. I mean, it just absolutely broke my heart when at one point her younger sister, Maisie, begs Isabelle to take her to school instead of playing hooky. All this sweet, innocent little girl wants is the chance to be normal. How can you–as her mother–not get yourself together? Why can your teenage daughter do it, but not you?
(But this is reality for an addict–they make bad choices–“choices” that aren’t really theirs to make. And it’s time for Isabelle’s mother to get help.)
Thankfully, Isabelle is one tough cookie and not completely alone. She is extremely close to her cousin and best friend, Jacquie–another fierce female–with whom she dreams of one day escaping and having their own apartment. She is her one ally and closest confidant.
And then there’s always writing–Isabelle’s cathartic, hidden passion. All but one of her teachers have given up on her, and the one who hasn’t notices she has a gift for it. He pushes her to be a part of this group writing project, and there she finds friends and maybe even love.
From the back of the book:
“Alcoholic mother, two younger siblings to look after, a crappy job at a mini-mart. Isabelle thinks her life can’t get any worse. But can it get any better?”
I really enjoyed this debut. I struggled along with Isabelle; just reading about how much she has to look after and put up with is exhausting. I felt her pain, her embarrassment, and dared, like her, to hope things could get better. That’s more than I can say for most of the contemporary book characters I’ve known combined.
This book is also eye-opening for those who are fortunate enough to have never known an addict–the vicious cycle of redemption and hoping things have finally changed for good only to get worse the next day. The responsibilities they just can’t bring themselves to face, because their addiction is stronger than their own willpower.
Isabelle’s story also aligns with one of my favorite quotes to live by:
“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
Of course, Isabelle hide her troubles from everyone. She doesn’t want people to know about the decrepit apartment she lives in, she doesn’t want people to know about her embarrassment of a mother. No one would. But with as hard as she tries to hide it, you just know a moment is going to come when the truth is revealed, and all you can do is brace yourself and hope Isabelle will be strong enough to handle it.
The writing and side characters were sound, as well. I wish we had seen a bit more of all the other students Isabelle hangs around with, but since we’re seeing everything through her eyes, it makes sense that she isn’t around them 24/7; they aren’t her biggest priority. That being said, I did love what we were able to see of them.
The only reason why I have to give it 4 stars, instead of 4.5, is because at some point in the book, for me, Isabelle’s story became a bit too centered around romance. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely loved kind, nerdy Will and was glad he was a part of Isabelle’s story. I truly wanted her to go for it and experience her first love like a normal teenage girl, but I simply wish it was a bit less of the plot. While I wanted her to be happy with him, I also wanted her to just be happy with herself; I wanted to see more of her following her passion and getting serious about her plans with Jacquie–getting her life in order.
I guess I’m just tired of seeing YA characters abandoning their friends and everything they’ve ever known once they meet their love interest. But that’s just me being a bit dramatic and picky. It’s really not that bad in Isabelle’s case, because I cannot tell you how much I still enjoyed this book.
Conclusion: I highly recommend this debut and am highly anticipating Lisa’s next release, whatever it may be. I’ve never read any books quite like Rodent, so all I can say is this: I recommend it for those who love strong protagonists and for those who are familiar with–or just wanting to understand–what living with an alcoholic/addict is like.
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