Early Departures by Justin A. Reynolds

 Early Departures by Justin A. Reynolds, Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins), 9780062748409, 2020 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Science fiction mixed with real life

What did you like about the book?  Jamal and best friend Quincy Barrantes have been inseparable since grade school, even creating a series of comedy videos called “Jauncy in the Streets.” But when a car accident kills Jamal’s parents, while sparing him and big sister Whit, Jamal blames Quincy for the ill-timed phone call that diverted his dad’s attention from the road. Two years pass and Jamal nurses that grudge, even as Q’s own father passes from cancer. Then the teens bump into each other at a party and the meet-up should have been their last; Quincy dies that night while saving a girl from drowning. Instead, Quincy is the beneficiary of an experimental short-term reanimation process and now Jamal and his girlfriend Autumn, Whit, and Q’s mom (Mrs. B) have a bit of time to say their farewells. The plot involves giving Q many last, best moments and Jamal’s internal monologue about whether Quincy should be told the truth.

I liked the banter between the characters and especially between Jamal and Quincy. Jamal is cued as black, while Reynolds described Q’s family as Latinx. Giving center stage to the friendship between two boys of color, and one that doesn’t revolve around sports, run-ins with the police, or racism in school, was rare enough to make me pay attention. The depth of feeling they both express once they make up, even going so far as to hug each other, made their friendship very moving and genuine. Reynolds uses the science fiction elements sparingly but effectively. We never learn anything about the technology, but as the book is entirely about trusting the people you care about, that omission doesn’t matter in the slightest. All the main characters are described as BIPOC.

Anything you didn’t like about it?  For the first 30 pages or so, I had trouble figuring out the timeline of the story (and the odd chapter numbering didn’t help). Female characters in the book felt like an afterthought. Given that she’s lost her husband and now her son, Quincy’s mom (Ms. B) gets very short shrift, especially when compared to Jamal. She’s a nurse and a woman of color, but expresses few concerns about the experimental process her late son undergoes, except for wondering if he’ll feel pain or suffer. We’ve heard so much during Covid about the well-deserved suspicion with which many BIPOC  view the medical establishment, so I thought that she might give voice to that perspective, but no. Girlfriend Autumn also felt flat: annoyingly self-centered and with manic-pixie qualities. 

To whom would you recommend this book?  It’s a weepy, so teens looking for sad but meaningful stories will find it satisfying. This would also be a good read alike for fans of Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End, albeit those looking for something a bit more upbeat! Reynold’s previous book Opposite of Always also had its sci-fi light aspects (Groundhog Day-style time travel), so readers who liked that one will be a natural audience. 

Who should buy this book? High school and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? YA

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: February 15, 2021

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