How a Book Changed My Life: We’re So Young

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This essay received honorable mention in the 2019 Hooked to Books Scholarship program.

How a Book Changed My Life: We’re So Young

We’re so young. These are the words that ricochet in my skull as I read Marina Keegan’s graduation speech, received by an audience of fellow Yale graduates just days before a fatal car accident.

A young woman I never met, never even knew about until years after her passing, a marvelous writer whose work I yearn to read more of, gone. It’s a specific and terrible grief, a profoundly destructive heartbreak that arises from the cessation of such a magnificent flame. The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan is the book that has grasped me more than any other. 

And perhaps I would have forgotten about it for a while if she was still alive, with new works to critique and fresh stories to absorb. Perhaps the book wouldn’t have meant as much to me as it does.

Yet I’m convinced it’s one I would always come back to even if she were alive right now, much like I always come back to Soccer Mommy or Jeff Buckley for beautiful music, or to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for reflection. It would still have stuck to me if she was here, breathing just like you and me, somewhere on the east coast staring out into a crisp winter night like any half-decent author does. 

I think it’s the harsh honesty, that raw melancholy of satisfying yet unhappy endings that many of her most gripping stories seem to have.

The contrast between the vibrant hope that floods you during her graduation speech, and the merciless heartbreak of the fiction short story “Cold Pastoral” that immediately follows. It is the universal sentiment of what could have been, of what should have been

The ultimate melancholy of a future never realized, even if it would have been an eventual and inevitable tragedy. Of being the rebound of a lover, the one in between their last heartbreak and the dramatic realization that those feelings never truly receded. It’s the dread of “Challenger Deep”, of being trapped blind and deaf and miserable, miles beneath the ocean surface in a ship running low on supplies.

It’s the tragedy of a long-lasting love turned empty in “Winter Break”. It’s refreshing to read such authenticity. 

Now, I’ve always been afflicted by a sense of urgency: the impending nature of death, the arrogant and human desire to be remembered, the sheer speed of time as lives tick away second by second-by-second — there’s never enough time, it seems. But no other author has ever made such urgency so palpable as Keegan, through both her work and her death. 

Look, she says, at these people whose lives are falling slowly and suddenly apart–at this girl who’s underdeveloped and inevitably doomed relationship wasn’t yet ripe to end, at this woman stuck in the monotony of a now passionless marriage where there once was excitement, at this woman who lost a profound love after an unfortunate circumstance and has once again been confronted by its utter irony. Witness the disintegration and reconstruction of their lives. Witness the cold dissatisfaction and uneasy reassurance.

I feel the need for someone, something, to blame: a drunk or distracted driver, a patch of black ice, a failing brake. I don’t want to accept that someone so exceptionally gifted and young could just be gone.

A blameless and unnecessary death doesn’t match the magnitude of the future that awaited her, and I can only imagine the moments of fear as the car smashed in on all sides, its passengers helpless ragdolls in the fury of physics. I can’t imagine being the one unintentionally responsible for the death of someone so utterly wonderful. The mere thought makes me cringe and cry. 

She is more than her demise, though. Her stories make me feel, as stories should. Open the cover, and after drifting through the introduction letter and her graduation speech, you’ll encounter the fiction story titled “Cold Pastoral.”

Absorb the 24 pages, and you’ll feel viscerally the wrench in your chest, taut and pulsing, as you remember perhaps an immature and flawed love fizzling out quietly, or a crush never fully explored. 

Perhaps I’ve misrepresented her work as solely sad or draining, though. In the nonfiction section you’ll encounter several charming essays, including an article titled “I Kill For Money” about a rodent exterminator in Chicago, as well as a particularly delightful and existential beauty titled “Putting the ‘Fun’ Back in Eschatology.”

Close to the end is the uncomfortable ego check of “The Art of Observation”–at the very end, the clever and all-too-true “Song for the Special” which explores both personal jealousy and the universal feeling of uniqueness every generation experiences. Her work is far from wholly depressing. 

Yet I’ve always especially appreciated a storyteller of any craft who can avoid happy endings just for the sake of happy endings, or tragedy just for the sake of tragedy.

One that lets the story speak for itself as it should, that allows its finale to be more intricate than just happy or sad, who allows a reader to remain in a subtle dissatisfaction as life often does. Love won’t always work out, sudden and unpreventable circumstances will interrupt your life at the most inconvenient of times. 

This appreciation of her earnesty is what makes those more somber fiction stories cling to me so much stronger. Something about the unadulterated personal tragedy of her fiction and her death drives me.

She should still be here, on this Earth, still churning the intricacies in her mind out into beautiful stories. She should still be here, stubborn and lively and tangible, a refreshing perspective in all this bedlam. She should still be here. 

Her yellow blazer is always what catches me first on the cover, auburn hair draped neatly over the collar, framing an intellectual smile. I always wish the book was thicker, but that’s just dissatisfied and greedy human nature. 

But no wonder I crave more–reading it has certainly affected me in ways I never realized such a short 200 pages could. “Cold Pastoral” floods me with the unfathomable, ineffable gratitude of having somebody genuinely love me, to never need to question his sincere feelings of affection or his true motives.

“Winter Break” stresses to me the significance of effort even long into marriage, reminding me so sternly that good love can go wrong if we let it. It reminds me of the powerlessness I feel over my own parents’ divorce, such an intense nostalgia for the what ifs, such a sense of loss for the greatness that could have been. “Challenger Deep” forces me to face a tragic mortality, to accept the uneasy truth of slow death in a powerless situation. Reading these stories help me get my act together–we don’t get a forever like jellyfish do. 

Each short story, each essay, reads to me in some way like a fragment of wisdom of how to act and cope in this world. It’s never preachy, always authentic, and never fails to raise the knolls of my skin into cold goosebumps.

I’m only four years younger than she was when she died, and it’s funny, actually, just how fiercely her writing compels me to breathe, to feel just how thoroughly and irrevocably alive I still am. I’m still so young, I have so much time just like she did. How do I want to use it? 

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