REVIEW: Sam and Ilsa’s Last Hurrah by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

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Sam & Ilsa’s Last Hurrah by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages

Release date: 5 April 2018

Amazon UK | Amazon US

Siblings Sam and Ilsa Kehlmann have spent most of their high school years throwing parties for their friends–and now they’ve prepared their final blowout, just before graduation.

The rules are simple: each twin gets to invite three guests, and the other twin doesn’t know who’s coming until the partiers show up at the door. With Sam and Ilsa, the sibling revelry is always tempered with a large dose of sibling rivalry, and tonight is no exception.

One night. One apartment. Eight people. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, we all know the answer is plenty. But plenty also goes right, as well…in rather surprising ways.

“Once upon a time, there was a marketing genius. And this marketing genius noticed that boys wouldn’t play with dolls, so dolls for boys needed a new name. He decided to call them action figures, and because of this, boys began to play with dolls. That marketing genius must have been proud.”

I appreciate that this book tries to say something deep, I really do, but the message gets drowned out in an ocean of booze and confusion. Combined with messy stabs at humour that fall flat most of the time, there were times when I actually couldn’t figure out what in the world was going on, let alone what the point of all this drunken partying was.

This book is very “quirky”. By which I mean there’s a lot of weirdness that just makes me go huh? Most memorable is a guy who, as far as I can figure, is a ventriloquist who speaks exclusively through the hand puppet he wears permanently and considers to be his own person.

Now I’ve seen some weird shit in YA novels, and this could have been a great opportunity for character development, but it’s just there for the duration of the book. After an initial moment of shock, the characters all seem to get over it and accept that this guy talks through his puppet. I don’t know about you, and I know even less about New York hipsters, but if I was there, alarm bells would be ringing all over the place. Yet his…condition is never explained, not even in an Author’s Note. In fact, I’d be interested if anyone has a concrete answer to my question–what’s up with the puppet boy?

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The plot itself is simple: Sam and Ilsa’s grandma (who’s called Czarina for some presumably “funny” reason that’s never explained), a cosmopolitan Bohemian world traveler, is about to move out of her rent-controlled apartment in the super-fancy Stanwyck building for good. The twins have always used that apartment for their crazy underaged raves, and they figure it’s time to go out with a bang.

The guests (three secret invites from each twin) arrive, and the party begins. Then stuff happens. And more stuff happens. Some stuff about Liberace and Dolly Parton, alcohol, the power goes out for a while, during which there’s a particularly disgusting hookup that gets exposed when the lights come back on, more alcohol, anxiety and depression and a mountain of other mental health issues, and did I mention there was a lot of alcohol.

The amount that these 17- and 18-year-olds were knocking back, I found it a miracle that any of them were able to make it home. Except for ultra-rich KK, one letter short of some unfortunate initials, who lives in the Stanwyck’s penthouse and tries to be a subversion of the spoilt rich girl trope, but ends up acting exactly in line with it.

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Despite what I may have made it sound like, I don’t have a grudge against drinking. Sorry, teetotalers. But here’s the thing: the one life-changing day narrative, à la The Breakfast Club, is damn hard to pull off. Because you only get the space of a few hours to tell a complete story, from exposition that makes us care about the main cast to dramatic buildup culminating in the momentous realisation or the lesson learned, the one day (or evening) you choose to capture has to actually be life-changing. When all of the characters are shitfaced out of their minds, it’s simply difficult to take the epiphanies they’re supposedly experiencing seriously.

Sam and Ilsa’s Last Hurrah tries to be a They Both Die at the End or a Gayle Forman-style book, but it misses the mark more often than not.

*Thanks to Egmont Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*

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