Thanks to NetGalley and Albert Whitman & Company for providing an eARC in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: Two boys: One is a star athlete and top student with a deep-seated need to prove himself. The other is a chip-on-his-shoulder quarterback who will never settle for second best. When gunshots echo through the halls of Broadmeadow High School, whose finger is on the trigger? A year before the shooting, Sam North has a bright future as well as a problem that no one seems to see, Ace Quinn, his neighbor and teammate. For years, Ace has been bullying and harassing Sam, yet he’s managed to deftly conceal his actions and threats from the rest of the world. As Ace’s secret rage intensifies, Sam becomes more desperate to stop him. But how far will he go? And what if Ace takes his threats even further?
Until I Break is a timely and unsettling book about a completely normal and nice kid, Sam, whose psyche, after years of what amounts to psychological torture at the hands of Ace, finally starts to disintegrate during their senior year, from the unimaginable stress. The story is told in alternating timelines from the present to back to the beginning of the school year. Although it’s not difficult to ascertain what’s going to happen, going back and looking at the events that lead up to the violent outcome, was a brilliant plot device by the author because it’s both incredibly intense but also insightful. I could literally feel Sam’s building anxiety and agony and seeing him unravel after years of psychological abuse at the hands of Ace was just heartbreaking. Sam’s not a loner. He has family. He has friends. He’s an athlete and is well liked, but no one seems to understand what Ace is doing to him, not even his best friend who thinks he just over reacts to Ace. Sam is already vulnerable because of the death of his father and his mother’s struggle with depression. Stepping in as a father figure, is his grandfather who loves him but bonds over football and taking Sam to the shooting range. He has the whole “Men stand on their own two feet!” mentality and doesn’t see what’s happening right under his nose. I have to say I grew quite frustrated at times during the book because no one noticed that Sam was deteriorating both mentally and physically. I think that perhaps the author put so much time and effort into making Sam a sympathetic and relatable character, that she skimped a little on others, especially the adults in his life. The story also features a somewhat twisted love triangle between Sam, Marnie and Ace. I’m just going to say flat out I absolutely DESPISED Marnie. She’s a shallow little flirt who delights in playing Sam and Ace against each other. Honestly, there’s not a single nice thing I can say about her except that she was supportive of Sam when his dad died. Beyond that, she’s an absolute horror show and I honestly couldn’t understand why Sam loves her so much. Ace is pretty much your stereotypical bully: an overachiever who never lives up to the expectations of his demanding father. I ordinarily would have a certain amount of sympathy for someone like Ace, but what he does to Sam is so heartless and cruel, well, I couldn’t summon up one iota of pity for him. I’m not a trained psychologist but if I had to guess, I’d say that at the very least, Ace has sociopathic tendencies. The way that he charms everyone while at the same time secretly torments Sam is truly frightening. The ending gives both Sam and the reader a sense of hope. With the help of a therapist/advocate, he’s given a second chance at turning his life around, which is as it should be. Although Until I Break has quite a few flaws, there are two reasons why I’m giving it a high rating. The first being Sam, who it’s obvious that the author poured her heart and soul into creating. Because of his situation and his wanting to please the people in his life, I think teens will completely relate to and become emotionally invested in him. I know other reviewers have criticized that his not reaching out more to adults isn’t believable, but I respectfully disagree. Growing up with an abusive mother, as well as being bullied in school at one point, I know all too well that feeling of being alone and trapped and not knowing who to trust—who to reach out to. And I think sadly, too many kids will get this also. The second reason I’m giving this 4 stars is because of the important messages this book imparts. Bullying doesn’t have to take on physical form to do the most damage. Those inner wounds left by verbal and psychological abuse can be even more damaging and lasting. Worse yet, someone can be surrounded by friends and family but still feel lost, afraid and alone. One very important part of friendship is listening to and looking out for one another, and I think even as adults we sometimes lose sight of this. I would definitely recommend this book for classroom reading and teen book discussion groups. It’s not an easy read, but I think it’s one that has merits in being shared.