Review: Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour

I didn’t know how to talk about my life with someone who understood.

What a beauty of a book! After We Are Okay captured my heart, I was fully invested in what was next in store for the author. Oh, how worthy the wait was for this.

My long-awaited move back abroad finally happened, and as I wrote the last time I moved, I can make out the promise a new city holds by the books in the library. And based on my reading experience with this book, I’m in for a treat. This is the kind of book to find me at the exact right timing. I needed it.

“I need you to be brave,” he said. “I need you to face her, even though it hurts.”

The main reason why I loved We Are Okay so intensely was its exploration of how avoiding the past colors the present. Funny how I read that book exactly four years ago. February is the month for Nina LaCour books! I vividly remember it for being home to the most beautiful passage:

“I look at her. I wish her everything good. A friendly cab driver and short lines through security. A flight with no turbulence and an empty seat next to her. A beautiful Christmas. I wish her more happiness than can fit in a person. I wish her the kind of happiness that spills over.”

This has lived in my head for years. When the line “wish you the best” doesn’t begin to capture the full truth, the above passage does. I even jokingly wrote in my notes: this is like, “tell me you’re from Texas without telling me you’re from Texas.” The full reality of showing versus telling.

The kind of writer that is capable of writing this is sure to have a grand follow-up. And I was not disappointed. I think it’s best to go into Watch Over Me not knowing much so that you can let the writing take over and reveal itself to you at its own pace. Nina LaCour’s words excel at capturing the essence of “How do you say I love you without saying I love you?” These passages:

“Okay,” I assured him. “We don’t have to. I would never make you do anything, Lee. Nothing that you didn’t want to do. But I don’t think he’s here. I really don’t. It’s only you and me.”
He nodded, and my heart ached for him. His little furrowed brow. His callused hands and his crooked finger. I touched his earlobe, small and perfect. “I’ll always protect you,” I said. “For as long as we are here together.”
He nodded. “Okay, Mila.”
I put my arm around him and felt his body lean into mine. He smelled like grass, like earth, like early mornings.
“I’ll never leave you,” I said to him. I closed my eyes. I felt his body relaxing, heard the slowing of his breath. “You’ll have to grow up and leave me first.”

And:

“I straightened the tip of one of the socks so that the hem lined up with his toes.”

And another:

“You notice people. You know what is needed and you do it. Whenever some hidden mess is tidied, some forgotten task completed, I think to myself, That was Mila. And even if you hadn’t done any of those things, I would care for you anyway.”

These are the kind of passages I return to reread to feel that kind of love up close.

Like I wrote in my latest review for A Room of His Own by Matan Yair, I have a niche for books that aren’t loud in drama or plot but rather focus on the inner workings of introspective characters. Watch Over Me was exactly the kind of book I needed to read with everything going on in my own life. It spoke to me.

Why is it so much easier to describe plot versus the complexity of healing from trauma? I don’t even know where to start when all the work is done on the inside. But it matters so much more to me! The blurb might feature the word ‘ghosts’ in it, but this isn’t a thriller or paranormal story. Or a romance. It’s very much the kind of story written when avoidance of the past might seem the simpler solution; not the right one, though. Because there’s something about having the main character, Mila, work through her past that made me think of myself. It gives hope to know that even when something is hard to talk through, it’s still right to talk about it. She gave me hope that challenging someone to face their past isn’t inhumane, it’s essential to the process of healing.

When you get scared in your chest and your stomach, you could try to invite what scares you in. Pay attention to it. Let it play back in your memory. I’m only now understanding it myself, but I think we have to face the things that scare us in order to move on from them. It might be the only way to stop being afraid.

This was it for me. I realized this book was a gem while writing down my thoughts. And I couldn’t begin to possess the right words to describe what emotions this book brought out. That’s the best of works when they leave me wordless yet seen. Or when my mind is a whirring jumble of thoughts that it’s a struggle to keep up with them all in time to note them down. So much to say…

I’ll have to resort back to my trusty list so I can capture all that I loved. This books deserves it all:

  • This story serves a more quiet, reserved, sensitive side. It’s exactly what I needed with everything going on in my own life. The main goal doesn’t get distracted by pretty boys or high-school drama. It is here to serve a purpose: Heal. It is as calming as this quote from Ned Vizzini:

“Things to do today:
1) Breathe in.
2) Breathe out.”

  • Watch Over Me surprised me by the intense emotions evoked out of me during my reading experience. I cannot begin to capture the essence of Mila, but it shines so brightly when the people at the new house were doing the high-lows of the day. Her moment of being quietly stunned by their kind words for her – the author just perfectly captured her nature in that scene. No joking or sarcasm, just genuine emotions. People who’ve lost so much are fine-tuned to how others perceive them. They will do anything to hold on to the good. There are very gentle souls in this house.

“My high was meeting Mila. It’s been hard to not have a teacher for two whole months.”
Warmth rushed to my chest. Here was this little boy, who wanted me.”

The one character that has my heart: nine-year-old Lee. Like the tweet, being a kid’s favorite person is a flex.

Oof, the kind of love I have for Lee is grandiose. Even recalling him now while writing, I feel the pull in my heart. He has my all, the kid. How could he not?

Oh, Lee. I placed my hand on his back, between his shoulder blades. I would have carried all his pain for him if I could.”

I remember being taken aback by how intense my love for Lee grew, one minute he was just another character in a book and the next I would do anything to see him safe. Whew.

Mila’s loyalty to Lee reminded me of my own trials with tutoring kids – you want to show them that at least one person understands them because that would’ve meant the world to a younger you. Being the kind of adult you would’ve wanted around as a child.

I keep thinking back to the way she spoke to Lee: not barging in on him just because she’s the adult but being very respectful of his space. Asking this gem of a nine-year-old, “Can I sit next to you?” “Can I help you?” Believing in his abilities, letting him see the solution on his own, treating him with love so he knows that’s what he deserves. I thought before starting this book I would be rooting for a romance, but I’m here for Lee and only Lee.

He gave me a smile. When I was his age, I had my grandparents. I had my mother. It wasn’t until later that all of it changed. Lee, I thought, as the freshly bathed children filed in, as Emma and Hunter and Jackson took the far end of the table, as he chewed small bites of bread, swallowed his careful spoonfuls of soup. I’ll do whatever I need to earn your trust.”

Not the love story I came here for but so much better: kindred spirits.

“No,” I said. “I don’t want to remember anything today. I just want to be here.”
He took my hand. “I understand,” he said.

  • And of course, there’s the matter of challenging the past; not letting it overtake your present. My heart beats just writing it down. Unraveling the unbearable (yet she had to bear it anyway) reality of reuniting with all the memories she has run from:

“Here it was—what I had been trying for so long not to see.
She had my face. My body. Not as it was as I stood there, but as it had been before I left my grandparents’ house. She was me, at thirteen years old, suspended in time at the moment when I had last been whole.”

“We were face-to-face now. Here she was, the girl who I had been.
She was so lovely.
She didn’t know what was to come.”

It hurts. The pain of looking at the past and seeing where it all went wrong and having no clear way to fix it.

“If only she had never worked in that diner. If only I had been enough. If they’d never let me go, and I had spent the next months safe, practicing the piano, missing my mother, and I had not run out of quarters at the pay phone, and they had not died and left me forever. If not for the nine lost earrings. If not for the late nights by the fire. If not for my wild recklessness, my desperate choice.”

The pain of “if only.”

  • I also keep thinking back to this line that hits it on the nail, for me:

“I wanted to curl up in one of the beds we’d just made. Wanted to sleep in this child’s room and wake up young and unafraid.”

I feel the echo of her ache. The distinct age between childhood and adulthood where you’re supposed to be an adult but you’re so tired of the trials. The writer hits the mark.

“I thought of how, when Lee had cried out, he’d had the others with him. Had their comfort and their care. But he was still a child and I was grown up. I was no one’s responsibility anymore.”

This book voiced so many of my thoughts and fears. It brought me some much-needed comfort.

The star of it all is in these next passages that are the ones that drew me to the book in the first place on facing fears:

“The thing is,” I continued, “I’m learning that it’s good to think about what scares you. To bring it into the light. Even to hold it in your hands, if you can, and feel how it can’t hurt you anymore. To think of it and say, ‘I am not afraid.’”
Lee watched me so closely. I could tell he understood.
“It takes away its power, to look at it that way.”

“Maybe,” I said, taking in a breath. “Maybe the fear doesn’t ever actually go away. Maybe we have to keep on working. We thought it would be simple, but it isn’t. We thought we could be finished, but maybe . . . maybe we’ll never be entirely finished.”

“I craved escape—even if it was into something terrible.
But I would be strong and good and survive the despair. I would make one move and then another.”

I’ll return to reread these words to give me strength whenever needed. Nina LaCour’s writing is a power-house on healing.

Read this, gift this, lend this – Watch Over Me deserves all the stars for voicing the unheard.

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