Book review conducted by PTM’s own Sarah Burton
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera follows two teenage boys, Rufus and Mateo, on the day they know they’ll die. And it’s brilliant.
I didn’t want to read this book. I like happy endings, and the title suggests tears. It delivers, but it’s worth the pain. They Both Die at the End captures that “keenness of feeling” that burns through our teenage years. Teens hover on the moment’s edge, when, without their permission, and not of their volition, what comes next is life and death. I’ll tell you what I mean.
The start of Part 2 of the book shares the John A. Shedd quote, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Childhood, whether it is truly safe or not, is safe in that it isn’t the child’s responsibility. They are still being built. The big decisions, the big mistakes, the big responsibilities, are not theirs. Children can screw up, but they have to screw up pretty badly before there is fallout that both affects the direction of their adult lives and is considered their fault.
As the teen years advance, rebellions and responsibilities increase, but it’s dress rehearsal. This time is an opportunity to try on the clothes and lines and roles of adulthood. Then there’s that moment in the dark hours when the clock ticks over and takes a person from child to adult. Some face that moment with exhilaration. Others face it with dread. Either way, they are launched. The world is not safe for them. And they are responsible, from that second on, for surviving it.
For every teenager in America, that knowledge is looming and unspoken. There’s no wonder that teens feel life and death in every decision. It exists there, in the fractal paths along which life unspools. Teenagers hopefully haven’t made those choices. Yet. They don’t know if their path will take them to glory or to struggle. They only know, whether consciously or not, that every time they make a choice they take a step farther from their childhood, and a step farther from any of the other people they could have been. In They Both Die at the End Mateo is sad for future Mateo. None of his futures will be. None of his choices will save him. Sometimes, that’s real, too.
Yet, even before he knew that he was going to die that day, Mateo, at 17, spent his youth agonizingly aware that any small decision could spiral into destruction, to the point that he’s missed out on life. Rufus, however, is already 18, legally considered an adult. We meet him after the tragic death of his family left him alone in the world, forcing him to forge a new family of friends. That is what adulthood does to people. They are alone in their choices. No one else can make them. We have to bring together, through our own choices and will, a circle of people we trust. Mateo tried stalling adulthood by not making choices at all, by living vicariously in video games and hovering in the doorway to adulthood as he hovered in the doorway to the world outside his apartment. No matter how he stalled, though, the clock ticked over in the dark hours. His childhood died as he did, as Rufus’s already had.
My sister has a saying that follows me: “Time passes, anyway.” Mateo’s childhood was gone, regardless of his stalling. His dad was in a coma. He was alone, despite trying to stave off the change to independence and adulthood and responsibility and the inevitability of an end. The vast mystery and isolation of adulthood—of death—came for him. There was no running. Time passed, anyway.