So, every once in a while, I fall head over heels in love with a captivating book. This one, When They Fade by Jeyn Roberts, was one that I found while living in downtown Toronto over the winter. Recently, I gave the book another read (or three, let’s be honest) and my love for the characters and synopsis was rekindled.
The first time I found the book, I immediately knew that I needed to give it a read. The summary is compelling, and I couldn’t stop reading. In Chapters, I found myself gawking at the pages in shock, and had tiny tears at one point. When They Fade is a well-executed rendition, with a modern twist, of the hitchhiking ghost urban legend. This fresh take on the afterlife is painted in a fascinating light that will have you intrigued from page one.
I know. This is a food blog. With the most random tidbits of life and dogs and travel. But this novel has me so enthralled that I need to share it with you all.
I would describe my favourite genre of book as “hauntingly beautiful”. The Lovely Bones, about a murdered teenager watching over her family and murderer, by Alice Sebold, captured my heart several years ago. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins was another favourite – I live for the suspense, the shock, the emotions. I’m also big on crime and paranormal horror with subtle (probably cliché but relatively believable) romance, à la R.L. Stine in his Fear Street novels. I was also a fan of Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, and If I Stay, both of which are classic YA thrillers that became movies. Finally, strong characters (i.e. S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders) and a powerful, though mysterious, resolution (like in Louis Sachar’s Holes) are key, in my own figurative book.
Title: When They Fade
Author: Jeyn Roberts
Goodreads Rating: 3.52
TATUM is the only person at school who knew the truth about the affair her best friend, Claudette, has been having with Mr. Paracini, their married teacher. And at the time, confiding in an adult seemed like the right thing to do. But now, everyone in town has turned against Tatum, painting her as a liar and a rat. As the bullying from her classmates escalates, it seems that nowhere is safe for her anymore.
MOLLY, a hitchhiker, was brutally murdered in the early 1970s, but there is no afterlife for her. Instead, she has found herself marooned with a crowd of other people who have also died tragically. Molly is able to fade back to earth for a few fleeting moments, and when she fades, she finds herself hitchhiking once again, and telling the unsuspecting drivers, things about their future that only she can see.
One foggy night, Tatum sneaks out for a drive. The teenage hitchhiker she picks up doesn’t talk much, until she suddenly turns to Tatum and says: “You’re going to die. It will hurt and you’ll be alone. And no one will help you.”
And then she disappears. As the two girls’ stories converge, Tatum and Molly will discover that they must first figure out how to help the other in order to save themselves.
“This affecting story of one young woman’s struggle to understand her meaningless death and another’s battle with bullies will likely appeal to readers of books like Everlost by Neal Shusterman.”
-The Phoenix Book Company
All characters in Molly’s afterlife are victims of early, sadistic, slow, and painful deaths. They live in a stagnant, “purgatory-like” island that doesn’t change, as they wait. They grieve over the tragic and shocking ways they left the earth, and we see snippets of their lives from flashbacks. Occasionally, these characters “fade” into the real world, to places significant before their deaths, where they often unintentionally scare humans.
- Molly Bellamy: the protagonist of this novel, who tells her side from first-person point of view, was fifteen years old when she was tortured and killed mercilessly in 1970. A whimsical, naive, self-proclaimed “foolish” girl, she left her parents, brother Marcus, and best friend Andrea, to live in a travelling hippie family with fiancé Julian, who she met in a Woodstock music festival. She was killed by Walter, the leader of the commune, who she viewed as a father. When Molly fades, she hitchhikes, and possesses the uncanny ability to recognize the secrets of the people who drive her (premonitions). I was completely immersed in her sixties hippie life.
- Parker: Parker was only eighteen when he was mistaken for someone else in London, 1923, and stabbed to death. Serious, thoughtful, and protective, Parker and Molly grow close in their quest to save Tatum. I would have loved to learn more about his relationship with Molly, and how it developed over the last five decades. Also, my hands-down absolute favourite character in When They Fade.
- Mary: In 1888, Mary was killed by a drunk man. In the afterlife, she remains in her corset and is full of entertaining lines and provides morbid notes of comedic relief.
- Old lady from Boston, Louis Chen, Canadian rocker, other murdered characters: Every character has a unique tale, whether it’s being electrocuted in the bathtub by a roommate, or being strangled over some drugs. I was very intrigued by these characters and wish I could learn more about their lives, passions, interests, and time periods.
All living characters live in Hannah, a city in Washington. They attend a small high school.
- Tatum: After spilling a secret to protect her best friend, Claudette, the tables turn to make her look like a psychotic, desperate liar. From midnight text messages to Facebook death threats to slashed car tires, the bitter Tatum manages to resist the bullying etched into her life. She befriends Molly after picking up the dead girl during a bout of hitchhiking, and discovers that she is destined for murder. I loved how Tatum has her own flaws – she isn’t the perfect victim.
- Claudette Nesbitt: Tatum’s ex-BFF, a manipulative “teenage temptress” who has an affair with their high school teacher. She was painted as a horrible two-faced sociopath who manages to make the entire town of Hannah ostracize Tatum.
- Graham, Levi Tessier, Juniper Hefner: Claudette’s friends, who are relentless in harassing Tatum. I wish these characters were “fleshed out” more. I’d love to know their stories, because it was difficult to believe the lengths that these “uninvolved” students would go to tear up the reputation of an innocent classmate.
- Mr. Paracini: the teacher who has an affair with Claudette, his student, and creates a web of lies to pin the blame on the innocent Tatum.
- Scott: potential love interest for Tatum? It was pretty cute. I ship it.
Things I Loved
- the tiny details that bring the story to life: mud squelching, fog swirling around feet, seeds stuck to hair
- I enjoyed the friendship, and how it builds, as the two incredibly-different girls bridge the gap between their paths of existence and their determination to courageously help each other and overcome personal struggles
- creepy and morbid at times, yet hauntingly beautiful in a grisly way
- thrilling, sharp, and the non-paranormal parts are real enough to be believable
- excellent portrayal of escalating mental and physical abuse, and the long-lasting damage that it can do
- gripping, compelling, entertaining
- realistic bullying anecdotes in Tatum’s life and horrific details surrounding Molly’s final moments
- subtle, consistent tension
- diversity of characters: although the main characters and supporting characters were extremely white – as in, American hippie hitchhiker whose best friends are a British guy with a bowler hat and a London female wearing a petticoat, and super-blonde teenagers in the most small-town American school imaginable – there are occasional mentions of characters of colour (more diversity would be nice)
- friendship was strong, and the supporting characters, Scott and Parker, had believable yet complicated motivations. They developed slight romances with Tatum and Molly, respectively, which added to the plot
- satisfying writing, with a beautiful story arc that builds up in suspense, and resolves quite smoothly
- great perspective on the afterlife
- powerful friendships and betrayals
- the unpredictable climax that made me gasp audibly
- incites readers’ sympathy
- Molly’s point of view is written in first-person present, and Tatum’s in third-person present – I almost never see authors write in third-person present, but Roberts accomplished this smoothly.
The author, Jeyn Roberts, graduated from UBC with a degree in writing and psychology. She lives in Vancouver today, and has written several other award-winning books such as The Bodies We Wear and Dark Inside.
Can this become a movie? 😏
Anyways, read this book.