Adam Blake is having the best senior year. He’s surrounded by good friends, does well in all his classes despite his ADHD, and even landed an elective period as the school counselor’s assistant, which basically means texting his friends and roaming the halls. He’s got this whole thing figured out, and everyone believes him; he’s irrepressibly effervescent (partly due to the ADHD and partly due to his positive demeanor) and never lets anything discourage him. But one month into the school year, Dr. Whitlock tells him to go find a student who’s been avoiding her, a freshman named Julian. The same Julian that Adam and his mother had fostered five years earlier, before his uncle Russell took custody of him and cut off all contact.
This unlikely reunion between Adam and Julian finds them in two very different places than they had last found themselves, but that same desire to maintain a friendship remains. Adam senses that Julian is hiding what goes on at home, and on the days he’s absent from school. And where is he hiding during lunch every day? But despite being 14, Julian still seems like the fragile 9-year-old that came to live with Adam after the sudden loss of his parents. Adam and his friends (some reluctantly and some eagerly) strive to help Julian mature and connect with his peers, while trying to keep him safe from the dangers that loom at home.
A List of Cages is Roe’s first novel, and inspired by her experiences as an at-risk youth counselor, which somehow makes the events of the book even more heartbreaking. Yes, this is a capital S sad book, but it’s surprisingly uplifting for being such. I struggle to enjoy those books that seem to be written with the sole purpose of making the reader cry (re: every Nicholas Sparks story), and I believe that to be a shallow catharsis. I’ll be the first to admit that I teared up, especially toward the end, but it was completely warranted. Adam and Julian are two very unique, vibrant characters; neither of them acts like a “typical” teenager, and they feel all the more real for it. The narrative switches between their two perspectives often, and usually within the same chapter, which helps to cover more ground than just one of theirs would.
Without revealing too much, the reader realizes quickly that Russell is a bad influence on Julian, but there’s nothing he can do to save himself. There is a small degree of hopelessness in this situation, but the reader also realizes that Adam is extremely intuitive and empathetic, and is going to “save the day” eventually. But Adam is in need of saving at times as well, and he has struggles independent of Julian’s that are addressed. Even Adam’s friends have subplots to follow, and Roe eloquently swaps them in and out to weave a complete and fulfilling story. The more benign storylines take away some of the tension of the emotional scenes, creating a balance that moves the story along and helps avoid the heavy-handedness that usually accompanies a story of child abuse. There is no “lesson” or “moral” here–Roe trusts her readers enough to let them determine what the takeaway is. And everything is addressed in time; no one is left wondering anything or hoping for more resolution. The ending wraps things up well without feeling at all cheesy, and I think it’s so satisfying because the reader has truly been engaged with the characters since the beginning, and the last scene is like finally letting out a breath you’ve held for too long. Your other senses are heightened, you’re a bit light-headed, but you feel a great sense of relief.
Roe’s writing is spot-on, with some truly beautiful language, even in those scenes that were difficult to read (and surely more difficult to write); her characters were all independently motivated and provided depth for a straightforward plot; and she has a proficiency for understanding the tone and touch each scene needs, to tell the most honest story. This may be marketed as a YA novel, but it transcends such basic boundaries. Don’t let the depressing aspects of the book discourage you–there is so much else to be rewarded with.
Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Disney Hyperion. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.