Brenna Yovanoff has never disappointed me. Her dark, paranormal romances have always been deliciously creepy and a little bit weird with beautiful prose. So she’s always a safe bet for a solid read. I wouldn’t call any of her previous books a favorite, but I always enjoyed them.
Her latest, Places No One Knows, completely blew me away. It’s a complicated and nuanced look at how difficult it can be to inhabit your own skin, especially in high school, and how sometimes, the right person can make it easier to breathe.
Synopsis: Waverly Camdenmar spends her nights running until she can’t even think. Then the sun comes up, life goes on, and Waverly goes back to her perfectly hateful best friend, her perfectly dull classes, and the tiny, nagging suspicion that there’s more to life than student council and GPAs.
Marshall Holt is a loser. He drinks on school nights and gets stoned in the park. He is at risk of not graduating, he does not care, he is no one. He is not even close to being in Waverly’s world.
But then one night Waverly falls asleep and dreams herself into Marshall’s bedroom—and when the sun comes up, nothing in her life can ever be the same. In Waverly’s dreams, the rules have changed. But in her days, she’ll have to decide if it’s worth losing everything for a boy who barely exists.
Brenna Yovanoff’s books have always had very heavy paranormal or fantasy elements: ghosts, changelings, angels, demons, magic. But In Places No One Knows, the feel is much more contemporary with a thread of magical realism. While less atmospheric, it really allowed the character development to become the focal point of the story.
Waverly works endlessly to maintain her image of perfection. Grades, running, friends—she does it all, and she’s the best. Popularity has been a game she’s played with her best friend, all Machiavellian high school politics. But Waverly isn’t really a vapid mean girl. She has a lot of thoughts and feelings rolling beneath the surface.
So many that she spends every night running because she’s unable to sleep.
Marshall has a bad home life. His parents are in a bad marriage because medical bills on top of an already precarious lower class status has made it financially impossible for them to part ways. Marshall uses drugs, booze, and girls he doesn’t care about to escape, and even though he’s smart, is failing at school just because he doesn’t see the point.
And even though they live in completely separate social spheres, their paths occasionally cross at school, and their both interested in the other.
But it’s only in Waverly’s dreams that they’re able to actually connect.
They talk and share and start figuring stuff out about who they are and what they want. There’s kissing, too. But only at night are they able to start baring their souls, sharing their true selves, and during school, in public, they continue to act like strangers, because the intimacy they share at night is just a dream.
Or is it?
This isn’t a novel you read for the plot, but for the voice. Waverly’s mental state is a bit enigmatic, and definitely complicated and layered. Marshall is earnest and tragic. Their both frustrating, in part, because they’re so real.
I suffered from terrible insomnia during my teenage years, and I completely related to Waverly’s experience. And while my partying never reached Marshall’s level (like, the dropping acid on school night, waaaayyyyy out of my league) I could totally related to the way he let the path of no resistance of hanging out with his asshole brother and loser friends and just coasted, because I saw that happen to a lot of people. These characters felt so real and true to not only my high school experience, but what will also be relatable for a lot of teens today.
Both main characters emotions were so visceral. This novel burrowed it’s way into me, to the point where I couldn’t stop reading until I was done. It stung in the best way. My only complaint was that the ending was a bit too tidy and expected, but like I mentioned, this was more of a character study and a concept novel than plot-driven.
But this novel isn’t only a study of dreams and finding a space to be yourself and love yourself and fall in love with someone else, which is what elevates it to exceptional.
Waverly also has complicated relationships with her female friends. We get to see how the dynamics evolve, how girls enforce rules and cut each other down, but also how they can challenge them to be the best version of each other. This isn’t just a “mean girl” novel. It’s so much more, but I don’t want to spoil the details. Equally well-developed are the relationships between Marshall and his friends and brother.
I highly recommend this for fans of Brenna Yovanoff’s previous books, but readers who enjoy genre-bending authors like A. S. King who may have wished for a little more love story in her excellent novels.
Kirkus: “Readers will forgo sleep themselves to witness their vibrant, achingly real story unfold.”