Book Review: “The Meaning of Birds” by Jaye Robin Brown

I’m so excited to finally get to do a full review of a book I just finished reading! I went through a bit of a reading slump in July, so it feels good to be back on track. I started reading “The Meaning of Birds” in mid-July, but at the time I was juggling a new puppy and wedding planning, which didn’t leave me with much energy for reading. This book was different than any other young adult book I’ve read, so I’m really looking forward to sharing my review with all of you. In the next paragraph you can check out my spoiler-free review, and below that you’ll find a much more detailed review broken up into relevant categories.

Spoiler-Free Review: “The Meaning of Birds” is a heartbreaking, unique story about Jess, a teenager who loses her girlfriend, Vivi, suddenly and unexpectedly while still dealing with the grief of losing her father at a young age. The story features strong character development as we get to know each main character throughout the story. The chapters flip between “Then” (before the loss of Vivi) and “Now” (after the loss of Vivi) as Jess tries to navigate her compounded grief, her existing and new friendships, and her uncertain future. With themes about young love, grief, and staying true to yourself, it’s hard not to emotionally invest in these characters and their stories. Although at times a little contrived, this book serves as a window into many different experiences: being openly gay in high school, being uninterested in romantic relationships, and struggling with unimaginable loss and grief at a young age (among many other things). There were some missed opportunities when it came to exploring these “windows,” but it was overall pleasant seeing such diverse representation. Please keep in mind these trigger warnings: Sexual assault, physical assault, death of a parent, death of a loved one, homophobia, transphobia, gay slurs, teen drug and alcohol use, compounded trauma. With that in mind, I do recommend this book to those who feel emotionally safe reading about these topics. “The Meaning of Birds” is a poignant and timely exploration of young love and loss, and a wonderful addition to an ever-expanding genre.

Below you will find a more thorough review containing my thoughts about the book. Please be aware: There are spoilers ahead! If you’d like to avoid any potential spoilers, do not read these categories: Character Development, Writing Style, and Overall Thoughts. All other portions of the review are safe to read. You can also just jump to the TL;DR summary at the bottom of the page if you’d prefer.

“The Meaning of Birds” by Jaye Robin Brown
Amazon.com: The Meaning of Birds (9780062824448): Brown, Jaye ...
  • Year of Publication: 2019
  • Genre: YA Fiction
  • Summary:
    “Before, Jessica has always struggled with anger issues, but come sophomore year that all changes when Vivi crashes into her life. As their relationship blossoms, Vivi not only helps Jess deal with her pain, she also encourages her to embrace her talent as an artist. And for the first time, it feels like the future is filled with possibilities. After In the midst of senior year, Jess’s perfect world is erased when Vivi suddenly passes away. Reeling from the devastating loss, Jess pushes everyone away, and throws out her plans to go to art school. Because art is Vivi and Vivi is gone forever.

    Desperate for an escape, Jess gets consumed in her work-study program, letting all of her dreams die. Until she makes an unexpected new friend who shows her a new way to channel her anger, passion, and creativity. Although Jess may never draw again, if she can find a way to heal and room in her heart, she just might be able to forge a new path for herself without Vivi.”

    Trigger Warnings: Sexual assault, physical assault, death of a parent, death of a loved one, homophobia, transphobia, gay slurs, teen drug and alcohol use, compounded trauma.
  • Format: Paperback
  • Themes: Sometimes you have to embrace grief in order to move forward. Moving forward after loss doesn’t mean leaving your loved ones behind, you’ll always carry them with you. It’s okay to be happy and sad at the same time. Rely on yourself for you own happiness. Do what makes you happy regardless of what others think.
  • Character Development: I thought the character development was pretty strong in this novel, especially when it came to Jess and Vivi. It was a little weaker with the supporting characters. I really enjoyed getting to see Jess’s growth both in the “Then” and “Now” sections of the book (discussed further below). Her life is marked clearly by her experiences before and after Vivi’s death, and she experiences different kinds of growth in both sections. As a reader, I found this compelling to see her come out the other side of her struggles as a stronger and more confident person.

    I also thought Vivi was developed well as a character. At first, I was a little frustrated because I felt that she seemed unrealistically perfect. This is because the book is narrated in the first person by Jess, and that’s how Jess saw her! However, as the story went on, we were exposed to Vivi’s own insecurities and flaws, which made her character more relatable (and her death more impactful).

    With that being said, I felt the side characters weren’t explored as much as I would have liked. With her best friend Cheyanne, it was strongly hinted at that she was possibly asexual or aromantic. Being that the characters are young and in high school, I didn’t mind that it wasn’t explicitly labeled (the character herself may not have known for sure yet). However, it would have been interesting if the two best friends had had a legitimate conversation about Cheyanne’s feelings instead of Jess occasionally making snarky comments and then apologizing for being a jerk. Jess never acknowledges Cheyanne’s feelings as being legitimate, so it just comes off as a plot device more than anything else. We also don’t ever get to know her friend Levi very well beyond the fact that he has a crush on both Jess and Cheyanne (neither of whom are interested in him romantically).

    Finally, I would have really loved to get to know Jess’s family better. The father figure died when Jess and her sister were young, so all three of them (Jess, her mother, and her sister) are experiencing grief in their own ways. Then, when Jess’s girlfriend dies, Jess is now experiencing compounded grief and her family is reminded of their own experiences with loss. Her mother gives her a lot of advice after she loses Vivi, but we don’t get a lot of details about her own experience with losing her husband. Most frustratingly, Jess and her sister never really have a heart-to-heart about their experiences with grief. It’s clear that her sister is struggling in her relationships with the
    men in her life after losing her father at a young age, but after Jess loses Vivi her sister struggles to be empathetic and understanding (even though she has experienced loss too). I wish we had gotten to know the sister better, and that she could have had more of a role in Jess’s emotional recovery.
  • Plot/Pacing: Overall, I ended up enjoying the story, but I did think the pacing was off. I didn’t really get sucked in until about halfway through, so it took quite awhile (especially considering it’s YA fiction, which normally has quicker pacing). The book starts out really heavy (it begins right after Vivi’s death), and even the flashbacks begin during a more turbulent time in Jess’s past. This caused me to struggle with the pacing because it was a lot of heavy content about characters that I didn’t have a connection with yet. It made it hard for me to keep wanting to pick it up and read more. However, by the end I did appreciate the format, and even felt glad it was structured this way rather than a traditional, chronological timeline.
  • Writing Style: As mentioned earlier, this book is structured with a “Then” and “Now” timeline based on whether the events occurred before or after Vivi’s death, and the chapters alternate between the two timelines. As I wrote above, I was unsure of this at first, but it ended up making the story much more cohesive and impactful for me. In the “Then” sections, we see Jess struggling to work through the trauma of losing her father. She struggles with anger management and self-confidence, but this all changes when she meets Vivi. Vivi supports her and inspires her to be her best self and to embrace her talents as an artist. It’s uplifting to see the person Vivi helps her become. In the “Now” sections, Jess is distraught and doesn’t know who she is (or who she wants to be) anymore. The things she learned to love about herself and the plans she made for the future with Vivi no longer feel right. Finding enjoyment in those things (such as drawing) even feels like a betrayal of her; they’re too painful without her. In these post-Vivi sections, Jess has to learn how to move forward independently and rediscover who she is without the love of her life.

    The reason the writing style grew on me so much was, as I neared the end of the book, I could really see the parallels between each section. Before, with Vivi’s help, Jess learns how to cope with her anger, invest in positive relationships, and plan for a future that makes her proud. However, she was really dependent on Vivi to be successful with all of this. After she loses Vivi, she has to go through this journey again (but this time alone and with the devastating and fresh pain of grief). Once again, she has to find new strategies to cope with her anger (she used to use drawing but now finds it too painful since Vivi was the one who helped her embrace this initially), she has to balance finding a way to maintain her old friendships while accepting that it’s okay to make new ones, and she has to learn how to love herself again and realize she’s allowed to have a happy and fulfilling future (even if she has to do it without Vivi).

    This helped make the story much more cohesive even though it was jumping back and forth in time. I also liked how the author would repeat a word or phrase from the end of the previous chapter at the start of the following chapter. This really helped make the story flow naturally.
  • “Bingeability”: Moderate. It was a little slow and difficult to get into at first, but then I ended up reading pretty much the entire second half of the book in one sitting, so that made up for it. However, for me, one characteristic of the young adult genre is a high level of bingeability, so it was kind of a bummer that the pacing was off in the beginning.
  • Emotional Investment: By the end of this book, I was definitely emotionally invested in the characters. I wanted to see Jess find her way and find happiness again. I teared up a few times toward the end (sometimes out of happiness and sometimes sadness), and I even found myself missing the characters after I had finished reading it. I kept having the urge to pick the book back up again to keep reading, only to remember that I had already finished it!
  • Windows and Mirrors: Lesbian teenager. Potentially pansexual or bisexual teenager. Potentially aromantic or asexual teenager. Trans girl in relationship with straight male teenager. Death of father. Death of partner. Anger management struggles. Female blacksmith.
  • Overall Thoughts: Overall, I ended up liking this book! It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it had a lot of representation that you don’t often see in young adult books (or books in general). I’ve already shared most of my thoughts, but there are a few things I haven’t mentioned yet. In terms of the representation, it was great to have so many different types of people represented in one book. However, due to the fact that not many of these characters were explored in depth, some of it felt forced or like it was there purely for representation rather than as a meaningful addition to the story. For example, there’s a trans girl that’s casually referenced by name, but then we never actually get to meet her and that’s all we ever know about her. For that reason, I think it’s great to have such diverse representation in one book, but it would have been more meaningful if these characters had been explored more.

    There’s also some discussion surrounding consent. In general, it was nice to see how Jess and Vivi respected each other and waited for each other’s consent before moving forward physically in their relationship. However, when these conversations came up, it was usually in the middle of other romantic activities (such as kissing) and the conversation usually had a tone of trying to convince the other to give consent or to come up with a deadline for it, which is not a positive example of consent. The timing of the conversations were manipulative, and consent isn’t something that you can convince someone to give. If you have to convince them, it’s not really consent. Although this particular aspect was questionable, it was evident that Jess and Vivi had clear boundaries in their relationship and that these were respected. They treated each other with kindness and accepted each other for who they were, while still challenging each other to grow and become better people. Overall, I think it was a positive example of a teen relationship.

    Because Jess is grieving so intensely throughout the majority of the story, she makes some pretty questionable decisions. Some of these parts of the story were difficult to read; partially because it’s hard to “watch” when you know a poor choice is being made and things aren’t going to end well, but also because some of these decisions in the book just shouldn’t have happened from a narrative standpoint. It was also a little frustrating that after making several mistakes, Jess didn’t really have to deal with many consequences (other than a suspension from school). Other than that, she was forgiven quickly by other characters and her existing relationships didn’t really seem to suffer. This seemed unrealistic, and was a little frustrating to read at times.

    Jess also connects with two women about ten years older than her during the second part of the book. These two women are married, and their relationship along with their pursuits of art (tattoo artist and blacksmith) are very inspiring for Jess. I loved that she had such positive role models in her life, and that she found a new, safe space to be herself and figure out what she wanted in her life.

    On that note: blacksmithing (is that a word? Not sure, but I’m going to keep using it)! So cool! I’ve never read about a character who does this, and it’s especially uncommon to have a woman pursuing this hobby/career. I really enjoyed all of the scenes in this book that revolved around blacksmithing. It was detailed enough to give me a window into a an unfamiliar hobby, but not so detailed or overloaded with blacksmithing jargon that I bot bored or confused. I loved this part of the story.

    I also liked how Jess really thought about what she wanted to do after high school, and that she realized a traditional 4-year college experience wasn’t the right fit for her. It was also great how her friends and mother supported her in this! This can often be controversial, and isn’t something I read about often (at least not in a positive way), so it was great to see this presented as a valid choice.

    Overall, I enjoyed this story. It was unique, heartbreaking, and the themes were poignant. It clearly wasn’t perfect, but a step in the right direction for sure. It was very much a “window” book for me; I don’t struggle with anger management, I’m not gay, and I’ve been fortunate not to experience loss like Jess, but I still was able to deeply connect with this book due to the well-rounded characters. I saw myself reflected in Vivi’s desire to take things slow in her relationship with Jess, I saw myself in Cheyanne’s dedication to her schoolwork and hobbies, and I saw myself in Jess’s desire to create a future for herself that she felt proud of. To me, a really good book has windows and mirrors for any reader who may pick it up, and that’s exactly what this book did.
  • Recommendation: Yes, with reservations. I think this book is an important addition to the young adult genre. I felt the themes were poignant and moving, and I think this story will stick with me for a while (maybe not forever, but that’s okay). However, there were so many elements of this story that could be triggering (and some were unnecessarily included). Obviously, with a subject matter of compounded trauma there are going to be parts that are hard to read, but some moments were unnecessarily traumatic (like some of the offensive language used or scenes of assault). Please be aware of the trigger warnings included below the summary, and if any of these are a concern for you then this may not be the book for you.
     
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

TL;DR:
Year of Publication: 2019
Genre: YA Fiction
Summary:
Jess has always struggled to control her anger, but this all changes when she meets Vivi. Vivi not only helps her grow and gain better control of her feelings, but she helps her embrace her talents as an artist. However, this all changes senior year when Vivi passes away unexpectedly. Devastated by this loss, Jess begins to push everyone and everything she loves away, including drawing. When the opportunity comes up to participate in a work-study program, Jess accidentally discovers a new passion and outlet for her feelings. Could this be the way to mending her broken heart enough to move forward into a future without Vivi?
Themes:
Grief. Love. Loss. Friendship. Family. Being yourself.
Character Development:
Strong for the main characters, weak for the supporting characters.
Plot/Pacing:
Slow in the beginning, but strong in the second half of the story.
Writing Style:
Written in chapters alternating between “Then” (before Vivi died) and “Now” (after Vivi died). Good transitions between chapters that make it flow naturally.
“Bingeability”:
Moderate.
Emotional Investment:
Strong. I actually teared up a little toward the end, and it was difficult to say goodbye to the characters once the story was over.
Windows and Mirrors:
Many windows into various types of people’s lives (especially regarding sexuality), but some seemed inauthentic due to not being explored enough in the story.
Overall Thoughts:
Unique, heartbreaking, imperfect story. Positive representation of lesbian couples who existed and were well-developed outside of their relationships/sexuality as well. Difficult to read at times, and includes many potential triggers (please read the trigger warnings included with the full summary above).
Recommendation:
Yes, with reservations based on the trigger warnings.
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review on Friday!

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