May Contain Spoilers
Noelle’s life is all about survival. Even her best friend doesn’t know how much she gets bullied, or the ways her mom neglects her. Noelle’s kept so much about her life a secret for so long that when her longtime crush Julian Porter starts paying attention to her, she’s terrified. Surely it’s safer to stay hidden than to risk the pain of a broken heart. But when the bullying of her classmate takes a dramatic turn, Noelle realizes it’s time to stand up for herself – and for the love that keeps her holding on.
This book brought back a lot of unpleasant memories, and I was going to put it down and return it back to the library unread. I remember what it was like to be mercilessly picked on in school, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted a refresher course. I became invested in Noelle’s unhappiness, though, and wondered what she would be able to do to change her circumstances. In addition to having to deal with bullies at school, she also has a nightmare at home. Her mother has been raising her alone, and she is resentful of Noelle. She blames her daughter on her own discontent with her life and her dead end job. She takes her frustrations out on Noelle, and doesn’t care for her. There is never enough food in their cramped rental unit, and her mother’s indifferent eats away at her.
With all of bullying and her mother’s neglect, Noelle feels that she is unlovable. She finds herself in a relationship with a popular boy who is obviously taking advantage of her. He has sworn her to secrecy about their clandestine encounters. They spend the entire time making out. This wasn’t surprising, considering Noelle’s dysfunctional home life. Conversation isn’t something that happens at her house, so why would she expect to actually talk to the boy she has convinced herself that she’s in love with?
When a cute classmate shows some interest in her, Noelle freaks out. Yes, she likes Julian, and yes, she’s dreamed of getting together with him, but she won’t kid herself. Noelle is one of the poorer kids attending her high school, and Julian is from another world. His parents are wealthy, and she just won’t fit into his life. Despite her messed up emotions, Noelle did begin to frustrate me here. Matt was clearly using her, he refused to be seen with her in public, and yet she stubbornly refused to admit to herself that he was taking advantage of her. Their “relationship” didn’t make her happy; it made her miserable that she had to keep it a secret from even her only friend, and yet she continued down a path that she knew was wrong. Instead of giving Julian a chance, she turned him down, without even giving him a chance to prove himself to her. I understood her fear of becoming emotionally involved with a guy she was afraid would break her heart, but I was still disappointed that she refused to even try to be his friend.
I found Noelle easy to relate to. Her anger and unhappiness pulsed convincingly on every page. Her tormenting classmates and her mother left her feeling helpless, without any sense of empowerment or self-confidence to help her cope. To avoid becoming targets themselves, her former friends abandoned her. She quickly got used to keeping her deepest, most genuine feelings repressed. How do you continue, day after day, to go on, knowing that nothing is going to get any better? For Noelle, salvation lies in the future, after she graduates and escapes from her small town. I understood this, having once felt that way myself. When you are that unhappy, it’s hard to contemplate that things will ever get better, unless there is a drastic change in your surroundings. Noelle copes by counting down the days until she graduates, crossing them off on the calendar in her room. She doesn’t think that her life will begin until after she’s finished with high school and the bullies who make her days nightmarish. Everything seems so big and insurmountable when you are wrapped up in your own personal misery, and getting through every day is a challenge. Susane Colasanti’s narration is painfully convincing, so it was not surprising to discover that she was the victim of bullying herself.
Keep Holding On managed to end on an up-beat note, as Noelle does find an inner strength and peace of mind to keep her moving forward. I wasn’t as convinced by the ending as I was with the rest of the book, but any other ending would have been a complete downer. I am glad that Noelle was able to find the tenacity to face each day head on and begin living her life, instead of running away and hiding from it.
Review copy obtained from my local library