Words and Their Meanings by Kate Bassett

By Ekta R. Garg

December 3, 2014

Rated: Bypass it

A teen deals with the impending first anniversary of the death of her uncle. As the anniversary approaches, she tries to deal with the dearth in her life created by the tragedy. Her family and friends do their best to help her with her grief, but nothing works—until someone new enters her life. Kate Bassett offers readers a first-person look at grief and its effects on young adults in the well-intended but meandering novel Words and Their Meanings.

Anna O’Mally has spent the last year deep in mourning. Her Uncle Joe—just two years older than her and the most important person in her world—died, and Anna has lost her life compass. She has retreated into herself and uses punk singer Patti Smith as inspiration to chart a new path for herself. This includes doing “coffin yoga” every morning and searching for a daily verse that she writes on her arm with a marker. The words act as a tangible reminder of the loss of both Joe and her desire to write, her one driving talent she shared with him.

Her family members have dealt with the loss of Joe in their own ways. Her father and Joe’s older brother has an affair, making his mistress pregnant. Her maternal grandfather moves in and does his best to help Anna’s mother with daily tasks and chores. Her little sister, Bea, has become the master at hiding, finding small enclosed spaces where she can process her own grief. Anna’s handling of the situation, though, counts as the most extreme, and her mother and her latest therapist force Anna to promise that she will give up her mourning on the first anniversary of Joe’s death or else go to a religious boarding school meant to rehabilitate her.

Anna agrees in public but knows in private she will never forget Joe or their special relationship. In an effort to humor her mother, though, she allows her best friend to help her get a job as a server in a catering company. Through work she meets Mateo, the young hot chef every girl wants. Despite every inclination otherwise, Anna feels a strong draw toward Mateo and she also feels confused. Does feeling so strongly for Mateo mean she will forget her grief?

Author Kate Bassett uses her prose well, and yet the story flounders. Told in first person, Anna shares the depth of her grief well. When Mateo enters the story, however, Anna’s attention shifts and so does the focus of the book. A revelation about Joe’s past brings the story back to his death for a short time, but Anna spends so much time thinking about her loss that she doesn’t focus on the person.

In this feature Bassett makes a valid point about death: people often give their grief a higher priority than the relationship they shared with those who no longer live. The result in the book, however, makes the story flat. Anna spends enough time with Mateo and thinking and talking about him that at one point readers may wonder whether Mateo’s presence should become the real focus of the story. By the time Anna wanders back to trying to figure out Joe’s secret, the secret no longer seems like one. Readers will have no trouble guessing it. In fact the only person clueless throughout the book and shocked at the revelation is Anna.

I recommend readers bypass Words and Their Meanings.

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