The world of Young Adult fiction is incestuous. If you read the acknowledgements in the back of a book, and you really should, they all have the same names. Adam Silvera is no different, and his books, although gay-flavoured, aren’t that much different to the rest. There’s some sort of statute that means every YA novel must have at least one reference to Harry Potter, unless there’s need for a parallel universe equivalent. History is All You Left Me has the same plug-in-and-play cultural references as every other novelist in the Silvera crew. Maybe this makes the teens feel safe and at home. At any rate, History is All You Left Me is instantly better than Silvera’s debut More Happy Than Not, which leant too heavily into the teenage tearjerker genre.
History Is All You Left Me juggles two storylines: Then and Now. In the Now, Griffin is mourning the death of his ex-boyfriend Theo. In the Then, Griffin recalls the formation and destruction of their relationship. In the Now, Griffin must juggle the knowledge that the only person who understands how he’s feeling is Jackson, Theo’s new boyfriend, against the rapid acceleration of his OCD symptoms.
Although there is nothing wrong with genre trappings, they didn’t work in More Happy Than Not; in setting History is All You Left Me in a grounded reality, Silvera is already ahead of himself. Theo is dead from the first page and there is no chance of him returning, which softens the potential blow of losing him, and we know that pretty much the worst thing has already happened.
The other thing is that Theo is a remarkably annoying character, bearing all of the solipsism and manic pixie dream boy hallmarks of a Young Adult love target, but it’s nice for once to read a book where the impossibly unattainable character is a boy. There is no Alaska or Margo Roth Spiegelman here and, more than that, there is no mystery to Theo. He was just a boy with a strong selfish streak that was conveniently overlooked by everyone who knew him in life. Neither Griffin nor Jackson is capable of seeing beyond their love for Theo, which is kind of the point with young love. Silvera’s characters are realistic in their single-mindedness, but that doesn’t mean that they’re always fun to read.
Griffin is a better character than Theo, and Silvera was wise to not shift between viewpoints. YA love is always going to feel more overblown than the real thing, but where History is All You Left Me gets it right is in presenting a brokenhearted character who hasn’t finished one grieving process before he has to start another. The traditional stupid decisions made by YA characters make slightly more sense here given the context, but Griffin and everyone that he knows are incredibly dramatic. This is a book where nearly every reaction is an overreaction, but at least it works.
The other character note is about Griffin’s OCD. How much research went into the depiction of his condition is unclear: to a layman it seems that he needs stronger treatment (or any treatment) than he had been given, and it’s not a simple dichotomy of “accommodation” versus “forcing into discomfort”. Griffin is a relatively better-off protagonist than Silvera’s others, so at least he doesn’t have to worry too much about fighting the American health system. His need for therapy is a larger problem than any of the emotional turmoils he faces with the Theo scenario, but at no point does History is All You Left Me become a novel about OCD. To say if it would have been better or just tokenistic is purely academic, but it’s worth considering.
History is All You Left Me is a slightly more mature gay YA novel from Adam Silvera. It’s a genre that will probably never be crowded, but it’s far more healthy than it was at the turn of the decade. We need more good entries to be published and shine to allow room for the mediocre and bad ones to fade away; with History is All You Left Me, Silvera inches ever closer.