Author: Erin Stewart
Publication date: March 15, 2022
Genre: YA contemporary
My rating: 4.5/5 stars
By turns painfully real and softly hopeful, The Words We Keep is a striking exploration of the effects of mental illness not just on an individual, but on an entire family. It addresses the pervasiveness of mental health struggles across all types of individuals–social butterflies, high-achieving academic types, and nonconformist artists. And it does so through the eyes of anxious girl doing her best not to come unraveled even as her world seems to be falling apart around her. I couldn’t get over how much this story resonated with my own memories of high school and college–through those years of my life, so much of this main character’s experience could have been my own–and I sincerely hope this book is picked up by students working their way through high school today, as the stakes and anxieties have only gotten higher the past few years. Read on for a full review, as well as some quotes from this book that I really appreciated.
A beautifully realistic, relatable story about mental health and the healing powers of art–perfect for fans of Girl in Pieces and How it Feels to Float.
It’s been three months since The Night on the Bathroom Floor–when Lily found her older sister Alice hurting herself. Ever since then, Lily has been desperately trying to keep things together, for herself and for her family. But now Alice is coming home from her treatment program and it is becoming harder for Lily to ignore all of the feelings she’s been trying to outrun.
Enter Micah, a new student at school with a past of his own. He was in treatment with Alice and seems determined to get Lily to process not only Alice’s experience, but her own. Because Lily has secrets, too. Compulsions she can’t seem to let go of and thoughts she can’t drown out.
When Lily and Micah embark on an art project for school involving finding poetry in unexpected places, she realizes that it’s the words she’s been swallowing that desperately want to break through.
Trigger/content warnings: suicide attempt, suicide, suicidal ideation, self-injury (cutting and skin-picking), bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, compulsive behaviors, psychiatric hospitalization, demeaning comments about mental illness, death of a parent, mentions of Harry Potter (though not of Rowling)
Do you ever read a book and just go, “Dang, this author must have ripped some of this from my actual life,” because it speaks so closely to your own experiences? Because that was completely my response to this book. Lily’s high school experience tracked my own so closely, it almost hurt. An overachieving type-A student? Check. Aspiring poet who uses words to vent her anxieties but is afraid of sharing them? Check. Attempting to deny mental health problems out of fear that you’ll disappoint others, fail to achieve ultimate success in college admissions, and/or make someone else’s life harder? Check, check, and check. While Lily’s problems escalated far more quickly than my own did–and she was able to address them far sooner as a result–seeing the depths of her pain and struggles still really hit home. I also found a lot of relatable points from Lily’s sister Alice as well–the difficulty of being on medications that don’t work correctly, the awkwardness when people want to tiptoe around your mental health problems instead of just addressing them. And I really, really appreciated the infusion of art and poetry into the story, and using that art to speak to the broader anxieties, even the non-clinical ones, that plague students everywhere. I think the world could use some more guerilla poets.
One of the things I’ve seen some people complain about with this book is that Lily is often self-centered and not very likable. The thing is, that’s kind of the point. Anxiety can turn your brain into a sort of tunnel vision, and you get so preoccupied with your own problems that you start to forget other things that should be important, and to neglect your relationships as a result. (Side note: Lily’s best friend Sam deserves an award for being so unflappable and awesome.) The author actually captures amazingly the degree of thought-spiraling Lily experiences, using a series of crossed-out words every time Lily is trying to disregard a
fear she’s going crazy anxiety about her future
thought. This constant self-revision and denial of serious problems for the sake of appearances is a very real problem that people with severe anxiety face. I’ve faced it myself, and still sometimes do. This sometimes-selfish, often-flawed thinking made Lily relatable and realistic. It’s not surprising that the author is able to articulate this experience so well–as she explains in an author’s note at the end of the book, she herself has had serious struggles with anxiety, and this book was written in large part for her teenage self.
A tiny thing I appreciated was a nod to the “have you tried yoga?” question that so many mentally ill people face. It was handled in a way that, despite being such a small part of the book, actually showed a good deal of nuance.
I really only had one small issue with this book, which was a specific aspect of the romance in it. While I did like the characters and their relationships as a whole (for real, I love seeing a supportive couple–and I appreciate that the boy with dark hair and a traumatic past is actually not a douchebag), there were some comments near the end that felt a little weird to me. Without spoiling much, I’ll just say that after spending so much of the book focused on family, it felt strange to prioritize the romance over everything else.
Finally, I do want to stress that this is not a light read. It deals with very heavy subjects in significant detail, and readers should definitely note the trigger and content warnings. That said, it is also a tremendously important read, and I think confronting the harsh realities of mental illness is a crucial step toward reducing stigma and encouraging people to seek help. This book is raw. It is real. It is powerful, complex, and utterly important. I’m certainly glad I read it–and I sincerely hope others will pick it up too.
Here are just a few quotes and passages I really appreciated from this book. I’ve done my best to keep them spoiler-free!
- “Sometimes, I think the silence is the only thing holding this family together.”
- “I’m losing my shit at an alarming rate. I use the term losing metaphorically, of course, because I’ve decided going insane is a process, and not a singular event, despite our eloquent idioms.”
- “The parts that scare you most, that’s where the artist is born, for fear comes from the mind. And art comes from the heart.”
- “Don’t tell me it’s jut one grade or one solo or one anything. It’s a never-ending domino effect to success, and if one piece is off, only the slightest bit not perfect, the whole thing goes to hell.”
Sam frowns. “Depressing.”
- “Alice has eclipsed anything and everyone else. She’s always been the center of whatever room she enters, like a supernova, all light and sparkle and energy. But here’s the thing about explosions–bombs or supernovas or really anything that erupts in a startling display of grandeur and light: when they’re done, and the fire has all burned out and the show is over, they always leave a hole.”
- “So art is like your medicine?”
“No, Zoloft is my medicine. Art is my high.”
- “We’re all a work in progress.”
- “How do you do that?” I ask.
“See things like that.”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I just see what something could be instead of what it’s been.”
This book comes out today, but the tour will keep going all week. Stay tuned on both blogs and Instagram to see what others have been working on for this book–reviews, pictures, mood boards, and more. You can find the full schedule HERE.
About the Author
Erin Stewart is the author of SCARS LIKE WINGS, her debut novel. Erin is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern and a BYU undergraduate who works as a freelance writer and editor, as well as a weekly columnist in Salt Lake City.
Erin lives in Utah with her husband and three children. She is represented by the amazing Rebecca Sherman of Writers House.
Huge thank you to TBR and Beyond Tours and Delacorte Press for providing me with an eARC of this book via NetGalley as part of my participation in this tour! All opinions are my own.