Ness, Patrick. Release. HarperTeen, 2017.
I was a young college student when I was assigned Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. 19-year-old me “didn’t get it”, but 32-year-old me has since found value in the text. The monotony of everyday life can be both tragic and beautiful. I decided to tackle a modern Mrs. Dalloway retelling, Patrick Ness’ Release, to see whether or not it resonated with me the same way.
Teenager Adam Thorn has a lot on his plate. He’s gay, a grievous offense in the eyes of his willfully ignorant parents. Adam’s father is an evangelical preacher; his older brother is attempting to follow in their father’s footsteps. Along with balancing school and worrying about college in the light of his family’s financial issues, Adam also works part-time at a big box store to make ends meet. There he is consistently sexually harassed by his manager, Wade, until his advances reach a fever pitch. Adding to Adam’s strife, he isn’t sure he loves his current boyfriend, Linus, as much as his ex-boyfriend, Enzo. Enzo’s going away party looms at the day’s end. Will Adam sort out his feelings? Will he work up the courage to speak out against Wade? Will he finally confront his father?
As Adam is living through one very complicated and revealing day, a phantom has just risen from a nearby lake. A queenly spirit fills the body of Katherine Van Leuwen, a troubled girl who was strangled to death by her meth-addicted boyfriend. This spirit begins to travel through the town trailed by a protective faun. As she leaves destruction in her wake, it becomes clear that the queen’s destination is the jail to confront Katherine’s killer. Will she have her revenge? Will the soul of Katherine Van Leuwen ever find peace? Will the faun be able to stop the spirit from destroying the town and the world?
Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of the novel is what it says about love. There is the romantic love, of course, that Adam feels for Linus and, in a twisted way, for Enzo. But Adam also talks about different sorts of love—the love he feels for both his father and brother, even though their comments about homosexuality wound him deeply. There is the love he feels for Angela, his dearest friend and the family he’s chosen. The faun’s supervision of the spirit queen, too, shows a dutiful and loyal sort of love. It’s truly a thematic idea woven into every aspect of Release.
For me, the second braid of Ness’ tale—the ghost story—fell completely flat. I waited for it to have some sort of monumental significance, especially at the book’s end, but I was left unfulfilled. These scenes left me confused, and the stilted language took me out of the story completely. I was surprised, too, at how graphic the sex scenes were. It seemed a bit too detailed for a young adult novel.
Although I would not teach the entirety of Release, this book might be powerful in excerpts. Teachers who are working on thematic ideas and thematic statements with their students might find value in Adam’s musings on the many variations of love and family.