The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares (Review)

31123236.jpgRating: ★☆☆☆☆

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Realistic Fiction

Synopsis: Summer for Sasha and Ray means the sprawling old house on Long Island. Since they were children, they’ve shared almost everything—reading the same books, running down the same sandy footpaths to the beach, eating peaches from the same market, laughing around the same sun-soaked dining table. Even sleeping in the same bed, on the very same worn cotton sheets. But they’ve never met.

Sasha’s dad was once married to Ray’s mom, and together they had three daughters: Emma, the perfectionist; Mattie, the beauty; and Quinn, the favorite. But the marriage crumbled and the bitterness lingered. Now there are two new families—and neither one will give up the beach house that holds the memories, happy and sad, of summers past.

The choices we make come back to haunt us; the effect on our destinies ripples out of our control…or does it? This summer, the lives of Sasha, Ray, and their siblings intersect in ways none of them ever dreamed, in a novel about family relationships, keeping secrets, and most of all, love. 

My thoughts: The Whole Thing Together is a summer-y contemporary novel about a family split apart, thanks to years of tension and pent up anger. It follows all POVs of the children of the large family, as their lives change throughout the course of their novel. It’s the story about them reconnecting, thanks to these two teens who are not related but are apart of this broken family- in a way (Confusing, I know. The synopsis explains it better).

I was never a fan of third person narration, especially when it follows more than two characters. So seeing each sibling’s lives unfold, along with their secrets, as the story progressed, was puzzling considering each voice sounded similar to another and lacked distinction. But that wasn’t the only thing that bothered me about this novel. What bothered me the most about this novel were the micro-aggressions woven into the story, along with the subtle hints of sexism and racism directed at characters of Indian descent. It proves that authors, yet again, should stay in their own lane when creating protagonists from ethnic groups outside of their own because their internalized racism and stereotypes about those groups will bleed through their writing like it did in this novel.

Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at some quotes from the story itself to show you how problematic it is.

Racism shown throughout the novel

In chapter one, it describes the mother, Lila, when she first began to date the father, Robert, back then. Lila is a white woman and Robert is Indian, but grew up in Canada with his adoptive parents.

“You could see it in the picture if you looked carefully- she is strident, he is eager. She wanted to use him- his Indian-ness- to shock her parents’ system. He wanted to be part of the system he was supposed to shock.”

What even is Indian-ness? Is that a weird way of saying he wasn’t white, like Lila? There are so many things wrong with this quote, I don’t even know where to begin.

In this same chapter, on the same page, in my E-ARC, it says,

“Grandpa Harrison was predictably shocked and horrified that his daughter got pregnant by a brown-skinned young man with a presumably brown-skinned child when they weren’t even married.”

This description is never denounced as a racist thought. Authors, preferably ones who have actually experienced racism first-hand, can speak about racism in their novels if they denounce it and state that these thoughts are wrong. Nowhere in this novel does it state that Grandpa Harrison is a racist or denounce what he believed. Instead, this description is thrown into the novel without comment.

In chapter three, there is a description of one of the siblings which says,

“Quinn kept her own hours, ate half the parsley in the greenhouse, rode her bike in circles inside the barn, and dressed like a gypsy.”

In case you are unaware, g***y is a racial slur used against Romani people. It should never be used as a description of a quirky character and is offensive on many levels. Not many people know just how offensive this term is but it’s gross and everyone who reads the novel, including the author should be made aware of that.

In chapter fourteen, a character describes Sasha (Mixed race character who is half Indian) as having “Bengali eyes”. I just don’t understand this description at. all. Frequently throughout the novel, the author makes it known that Sasha has round or large eyes, so I’m assuming that “Bengali eyes” is one of her ways to showing that Sasha’s eyes are unique and different or that Indian’s have bigger eyes than others? There is a decent amount of adjectives in the English language to describe round/big eyes and so many ways to get creative with that description. Using the term “Bengali” to describe her eyes just shows how limited the author’s vocabulary is or just how fixated the descriptions are when pointing out South Asian features. *barf*

In chapter fifteen, one of the siblings, Mattie (daughter of Lila and Robert), described her sisters in comparison to herself. Mattie had “fine yellow hair and round violet-blue eyes”. This is how she described her sister,

“Emma was an exotic head-turner with thick black hair down to her belly button; and Sasha, the most Indian in looks, was quietly the prettiest of all of them…”

One, when describing a person of color (Yes, Emma is a PoC because her father is Indian), one should never use the word ‘exotic’. Only call birds and cars exotic. People. Are. Not. Exotic. It places a label of Other on people who are called exotic because they simply don’t fit the European standard of beauty. And how in all hell can someone be the “most Indian” in looks? Is that a not so subtle way of saying Sasha was darker than her other sisters who looked more European, thanks to their mother’s genes? I cannot. ALSO: If you were to reread the quote about Emma without the word ‘exotic’, the exact same message is delivered. It’s just extremely unnecessary and shows again how focused the author is to give these POC characters a not-so-subtle “other” label.

Mattie (the blonde haired / blue eyed sister) continues describing herself in saying,

“I kind of got all of it… She’d won the genetic jackpot. She’d inherited her dad’s smarts and grit, his merit as an outsider, his righteousness as a self-maker, his check mark in the diversity box.”

OH. My. GOODNESS. This is the whitest narrative I’ve seen so far. This is why white authors should not write about PoC protagonists. This character is basically saying, “Ah, I’ve got it all. While I’m blonde haired and blue eyed, I can still call myself an ‘outsider’ and be called ‘diverse’.” No one likes to have that other label that the author is so quick to stick it onto her POC characters. This statement is bleeding with racism. The character is obviously aware that she is getting “the best of both worlds”; no one questions her because of her light skin, but at the end of the day she can get called ‘exotic’ and ‘different’ because of her ethnicity. Her statement about how she had won the “genetic jackpot” shows this character thinks of herself as superior to her siblings because she has less “Indian-ness” attributes, physically. When you’re calling blonde hair and blue eyed person ‘a genetic jackpot’ you are placing a certain groups of people above others, and I understand it is because she probably gets more privilege than her siblings in society, but it seems twisted and wrong that the character sees this as such a positive than a negative, that she has more privilege and opportunities than her siblings, rather than not understanding why her “genetic jackpot” should give her a higher standing than the people she is blood-related to. It’s also not a coincidence that Mattie is known as the “beauty” and she is the one with the “genetic jackpot”. Hah, thanks for letting everyone know what the best features to have are.

In chapter seventeen, the sisters are shopping for dresses for a wedding.

“Emma pulled a bunch of things and brought them to the dressing room. Sasha took a navy-blue-and- white-striped maxidress to humor her. ‘Does it come with a burqua?’ Mattie asked through the curtain.”

When will we stop making fun of those who wear burqua’s? When will their choice in being conservative not be the butt end of a joke? This is a disgusting joke that should have never been included in the novel. It wasn’t funny. It was crass.

Sexism shown throughout the novel

In chapter three,

“People acted like Mattie was a ditz, but Dana made Mattie look like Albert Einstein. Dana used the calculator to add seven and two dollars. She posted pictures on Instagram of every semicool car that pulled up, preferably with some part of her dumb face barging into the frame.”

When, oh when, will we stop pitting female characters against one another? When will authors stop making female leads see other females as some unspoken form of competition? So what if Dana was bad at math or liked to use Instagram?! Mattie sees herself as ‘better’ than Dana because she doesn’t use social media? Whoop dee doo. I’m tired of girls hating on other girls for liking different things. Next.

In chapter eight, this is Ray describing Sasha,

“She was the kind of pretty only someone as deep as him understood. He laughed at himself for this thought and continued to think it anyway, as though her loveliness was something he’d invented.”

*barfs for five years straight* I hope I never hear a boy describe me this way. Beauty is not made specifically for another person and no one, boy or girl, should believe that someone’s beauty is theirs. Ray is mostly complimenting himself, in this sentence, by acknowledging how deep he is. The whole statement is cringe-worthy because it’s wrong, offensive, and extremely shallow. This is the exact opposite way to compliment a girl, acting as if he discovered her beauty and she didn’t know she was beautiful. Boy, bye.

In chapter thirteen, Mattie is describing Ray’s on-and-off again girlfriend,

“She’s your classic bratty East Hampton kid who hangs around Main Street wearing a lot of makeup and trying to spot celebrities.”

GIRLS WHO WEAR MAKEUP AREN’T LESSER THAN GIRLS WHO DON’T. VICE VERSA. WHY IS THIS STILL A THING HOLY MOTHER-

Chapter fifteen, Mattie is watching TV,

“She settled on a terrible rip-off of a terrible show involving a tanning bed and a lot of plastic surgery. It fit her need: she could watch people other than herself with loathing and bewilderment.”

Honestly, Mattie is so problematic I don’t know how she exists with all this hatred inside of her. WE GET IT. YOU ARE ALL NATURAL. This girl hates those who wear makeup and those who get plastic surgery. She is so unnecessarily petty about other females using cosmetics, and it’s disgusting. Bashing on women who do things to alter their appearance from the range of makeup to plastic surgery is in no way putting yourself on a taller pedestal, that Mattie seems to feel she is self-entitled to stand on. Does natural beauty need to be admired? Yes, of course, BUT that does not mean that harsh criticisms need to be turned around on another party in order to make that admiration more valid.

Chapter seventeen, the siblings are shopping for dresses and one girl says they need, “less expensive and less slutty options.” Stop. Using. The. Word. Slut. In. Novels. Girls aren’t sluts for wearing revealing clothes. Girls aren’t better for being conservative. I’m tired. Let me rest.

Honestly, there are other quotes shown throughout this novel that is racist or sexist, but I didn’t want to list them all here. I just wanted you all to have a sampling of how horrible the narrative is in this novel. White authors should do the research and be respectful when writing about PoC. Using stereotypes, harmful slurs, internalized racism in this novel without denouncing it at any point. These harmful and offensive quotes are sprinkled throughout the novel all willy-nilly, and I’m shocked that the editor didn’t point out how horrible this type of a language is.

This review isn’t made out to say DON’T READ THIS BOOK. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just writing this to warn readers, especially POC readers, that this book is harmful and should be avoided. The quotes I showed you above are harmful. They use language that should not be included in novels in 2017. I thought we moved on from things like this, but apparently, racist narratives slip through the cracks of the publishing industry.  

*Thank you to my friend, Sarah for editing and collaborating with me on this review*

Book Info: Goodreads

* I received an E-ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are subject to change once the novel is published. *

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14 thoughts on “The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares (Review)

  1. I’m 75% through this book and you’re right on with all your comments. Do you mind if I share your review when I publish mine? I probably won’t share quotes since I don’t usually do so in my review but I want to make sure people have the chance to see evidence so they can’t say it’s not true

  2. I wanted to request an arc of this book and now I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. It seems like no matter how many authors get called out for racism and sexism, there are still others who think they can get away with it.

  3. I genuinely can’t believe that language and outright prejudices and shaming are still being included in novels in 2017 – I’m definitely avoiding this book at all costs. (Great review by the way though, I really like how clearly you made every single point!)

  4. Book about love and family? Seems more like a book about racist, self righteous pricks to me.
    The author deciding not to have these characters experience growth and show why these thoughts are wrong is very telling.

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