Can't Look Away by Donna Cooner

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 Novel: Can't Look Away by Donna Cooner | Goodreads Release Date: August 26, 2014 Publisher: Point (Scholastic) Format: ARC Source: Author

Donna Cooner establishes herself as our own Jodi Picoult in this timely tale of sisters, loss, and redemption.

Torrey Grey is famous. At least, on the internet. Thousands of people watch her popular videos on fashion and beauty. But when Torrey's sister is killed in an accident -- maybe because of Torrey and her videos -- Torrey's perfect world implodes.

Now, strangers online are bashing Torrey. And at her new school, she doesn't know who to trust. Is queen bee Blair only being sweet because of Torrey's internet infamy? What about Raylene, who is decidedly unpopular, but seems accepts Torrey for who she is? And then there's Luis, with his brooding dark eyes, whose family runs the local funeral home. Torrey finds herself drawn to Luis, and his fascinating stories about El dio de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

As the Day of the Dead draws near, Torrey will have to really look at her own feelings about death, and life, and everything in between. Can she learn to mourn her sister out of the public eye?

Donna Cooner has an incredible skill with words. They aren't outrageously beautiful or poetic but they have this resonant quality of having so much truth in them. The entire book was well-written, clearly laid out and plotted in a way that made it a quick read but also enormously satisfying.

After Torrey's sister is struck by a drunk driver just feet in front of her after an argument, her parents move the family to a small town in Texas from their home in Colorado. But the change in setting isn't the only wrench that Miranda's death throws in Torrey's life. Torrey's grief is public, part of the struggle of being a fashion and beauty vlogger on Youtube. Her popularity online only soars after Miranda's gone, but Torrey can't find it within herself to care anymore when she can only think of how much she didn't know about Miranda and what she has left within her family.

To make matters worse, she has to start completely over in Texas of all places. From bonding with her cousin to meeting the boy whose parents own the funeral home in town, she can't decide who to be friends with within the cast of characters and whether their knowledge of her background will affect their perceptions of her as a person. When Torrey learns about the Day of the Dead and the personalities of the people around her, she finally starts to grieve and accept the changes around her.

I ended up being really happy with the main character, Torrey. Being involved with an industry such as fashion or beauty would be difficult because people can easily make assumptions about superficiality and personality based on looks especially. With parts of her life laid bare on Youtube and the internet, it was easy for fans and others to assume they knew what her life was like when they really had no idea. They made snarky comments about her sister and assumed she was shallow, while others clamored for her attention and watched her videos addictively. A clothing style doesn't determine whether someone's shallow or not; their character does. That's what made Torrey so admirable.

Torrey didn't try too hard to be something. She cared about popularity and clothes and boys, letting that snark come out when it was necessary for the situation, and also had her moments where she pondered death and sorted through her grief with maturity of a much older girl. Her balance and confusion to where her more shallow side interacted with the shocking effects that her sister's death had on her led to a realistic blend of grey with her character. Teen girls aren't those archetypes that so often show up in fiction. We have our shallow moments and our thoughtful ones; obviously, it depends on the situation and the mood. Torrey had both scattered throughout the narrative which was really nice to read, circling back to Cooner's skill with honesty.

She loved parts of her life that had to do with vlogging and also more intimate parts that were just part of being sixteen. She juggled fans, social media, and personal struggles with a vibrant personality that edged on both ends of the spectrum. She had the quiet reflections of a thoughtful character with the bubbly routine that arose from her vlogging past.

Donna Cooner did a pretty realistic job with detailing how the vlogging and public part of Torrey spilled into her private life. She handled that incredibly well. She talked about the work aspect of it, how much is online vs. in real life, ambition, and other important areas of being an online presence. It was a little more spectacular than any personalities that I've seen online, but that only contributed to how fun it was as a read.

My one wish for this book was consistency with the vlogging part of it. Parts of the book dealing with Torrey's fame and the work she put into that part of her life differed a little because they went back and forth on whether she was famous or not. She wasn't a huge name, but when she walked into schools, people knew who she was and wanted to be her friend. Gossip sites wrote about her and she had fans, but not overwhelmingly so to where it was such an integral part of her identity in her new town. Those details could have been cleared up more, but I was overall happy with how Cooner presented vlogging as a teenager.

Supporting characters made this book so much better. Characters had their molds - like the popular Blair and Mia - but they still felt like people. Raylene was a character; Ross was solid. They weren't explored too deeply, but enough to where I enjoyed them and appreciated their depth.

I loved Luis, and I loved the fact that he worked in a funeral home with his family. The romance was sweet, and it didn't detract from any other parts of the book. Torrey had her own issues without focusing on a boy or relationship as her escape.

One of the ways that Torrey learns to cope with her grief is through learning more about el Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead from Luis's family. From creating sugar-skull cookies to creating offerings to her deceased sister, the Spanish influence from his family was a joy to read about. It added another layer to a still-fantastic book, with little details and quirks building on the experience.

The compassion that Donna Cooner poured into her characters was phenomenal and only served to make the pacing perfect. The plot never dragged. The pacing was absolutely excellent. There was a finesse to it, an impact with every page.

There's no other way to really say it: this book was phenomenally satisfying, with the honesty and thoughtfulness that I love to see, coupled with a vibrant exploration of life after death. When August rolls around, I hope more people read this because it's truly lovely.

Recommended for anybody who loves: The Sky is Everywhere, Skinny, Jellicoe Road

Possible book club questions: 

How does Torrey's usage of social media affect her relationship with her sister? Her friends?What coping mechanisms do characters from other books use to deal with grief, like Torrey's Day of the Dead?Do you think Zoe was justified in creating a video channel afterwards? Why or why not?How did Torrey's online presence overlap with her regular life? How did it differ?How did Torrey's perception of her sister change after death?

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