Heat Factor: These teenage college first years get up to stuff, but the door is firmly closed.
Character Chemistry: Layered and complex, with a mutual forbidden desire and a rivalry for the top spot in the NHL draft
Plot: Mickey’s difficulty acknowledging his mental health struggles makes all of the burdens of his own and others’ expectations for him much, much heavier.
Overall: This book made me cry.
First off, Mickey and Jaysen are both in their first year of college, but they’re seventeen, not yet eligible for the NHL draft, and the themes and characterizations of the book are more Young Adult than New Adult.
Mickey has a story in his head about his life that’s absolutely real for him, but also maybe doesn’t encompass the whole story of his life, and this book really digs into how we might see ourselves and our reality in a certain way, but that narrow vision is like a box that we could just open, but we’ve been in the box for so long that we stopped thinking about all the things outside the box, so we think it’s impossible to get out. So you might see how the theme is for the young crowd, but I’ve got to say, I know plenty of adults who still find themselves in their own personally manufactured box, and I think the story is accessible to a wide audience.
Okay, so, Mickey. He’s the narrator and he’s a Messy Character. Mickey is a third, and his father and grandfather (Mickey I and Mickey II) were legendary hockey players who both went first in the draft. He’s at the previous Mickeys’ college biding his time until he’s eligible for the draft, where he is also expected to go first. He grew up in Buffalo, but when his father got traded to North Carolina, Mickey was left behind so he could focus on his own hockey development while his mom and four sisters moved down with his dad. He was ten years old. Then he was billeted with another family for juniors hockey when he was in high school. His relationship to his father is centered on hockey, so Mickey feels at once abandoned and also that he has to meet his father’s hockey expectations…or else? What else? He can’t see an alternative.
He doesn’t get diagnosed with depression until late in the book, but he’s aware that he’s not okay in the beginning, he simply tells himself just about any story he can think of to brush off getting the help he needs. Thanks to his brain chemistry, he hasn’t made the effort to befriend any of his old teammates, and he goes into college with the same mindset that it doesn’t even matter because he’s just going to leave in a year anyway and they’ll all be on different NHL teams and what is even the point. His only friends are the girl he lived with when his family left him in Buffalo, and his sisters. He self-medicates with alcohol. Like, there were moments when I was afraid of alcohol poisoning, which is stressful enough, but add to that the fact that he’s kind of a public figure because he’s expected to be the number one draft pick, so then I was also fearing that he’d get kicked off the team and lose hockey as well. There is a good deal of self-sabotage in this book, especially in the beginning when many of his teammates are trying to make friends and he blows them off (depression is a real asshole, folks), but even later, when he realizes that he really likes being a part of this team, his thought patterns still mess with his feelings about these developing friendships.
Another layer that complicates things for Mickey is that he’s bisexual, and he knows that that could be a problem for him in professional hockey. Add to that the fact that he’s attracted to his biggest rival, Jaysen Caulfield, a kid who’s as good as Mickey but didn’t come from hockey royalty and who resents Mickey in most ways you’d expect when a kid who’s worked his butt off for the NHL is competing with a kid who was raised in skates and had no expense spared in his training. Things start out really rough for these two, but when the team forces them to get the antagonism out of their system they 1) can at least start communicating in a more productive way and 2) acknowledge their mutual attraction (even though it takes a lot of additional growth to get to admitting their feelings to each other). Mickey is just so twisted up about what he wants versus what he thinks he needs for his career versus his brain just keeping him messy that it takes a lot for their relationship to get to a good place, but Jaysen is steady and caring without letting Mickey get away with too much BS, so the relationship drama is manageable. It’s fun when their rivalry becomes a game, but it’s still not all sunshine and roses for them.
This book kind of has all the things. Mickey’s dad was so excited to connect with Mickey about hockey, but the choices he made for his own career and Mickey’s ended up alienating Mickey to the point that he didn’t want to talk to his dad, and he wasn’t sure he even liked hockey. Mickey is playing at such an elite level that he is putting pressure on himself to be like his dad and grandpa, telling himself he has to be a certain way because it’s expected, but we don’t actually know that it’s what his dad truly expects. Even though one of his sisters is polyamorous and another is a lesbian, and the family’s supportive of both, he doesn’t feel like he can come out to his family, but he also doesn’t understand how they don’t already know—don’t they see him at all? He tells himself he grew up with such privilege that he shouldn’t feel like he does about his life, even though he also knows that depression is real, and he probably has it, and depression doesn’t care how privileged his life is. It’s a difficult journey, but once Mickey decides to start taking care of himself, and once he finally has a sit-down with his dad (OMG, I cried so hard), the catharsis is massive.
I’m obviously nowhere near YA age anymore, but I really connected with this book. In part, it reminded me of aspects of my own past that were really challenging at the time. But also Mickey’s personal narrative was so clearly self-imposed but also so grounded in reality, that I am reminded that it’s impossible to read other people’s minds, and it’s going to be important to engage with my kids thoughtfully as they grow and become more independent. So even though this book seems like it’s not meant for me, it was still a very worthwhile read.
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