The Grief Keeper

The Grief Keeper

This stunning YA debut is a timely and heartfelt speculative narrative about healing, faith, and freedom.Seventeen-year-old Marisol has always dreamed of being American, learning what Americans and the US are like from television and Mrs. Rosen, an elderly expat who had employed Marisol's mother as a maid. When she pictured an American life for herself, she dreamed of a...

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Title:The Grief Keeper
Author:Alexandra Villasante
Rating:
Edition Language:English

The Grief Keeper Reviews

  • Kerri

    being a crit partner has its benefits...you NEED this book in your life, trust me!

  • Maribel

    Of course I didn't read the final - with a real cover, and with the fantastic new book smell, but I'm dying to! A fantastic and refreshingly new tale that needs to be told today more than ever.

  • Katherine Moore

    I can already say that this will be on my list as one of my top and most impactful reads of the year (and it’s only May). I’ve not read too many books lately that can bring me to shed both happy and sad tears, as well as make me drop my jaw, and cause me to put the book down for moments so I could collect my thoughts. And although the title would suggest that ‘The Grief Keeper’ is filled with sadness, it also brings with it a bright message of love and hope.

    The novel opens with seven

    I can already say that this will be on my list as one of my top and most impactful reads of the year (and it’s only May). I’ve not read too many books lately that can bring me to shed both happy and sad tears, as well as make me drop my jaw, and cause me to put the book down for moments so I could collect my thoughts. And although the title would suggest that ‘The Grief Keeper’ is filled with sadness, it also brings with it a bright message of love and hope.

    The novel opens with seventeen-year old Marisol being interviewed in a federal border detention center, having just crossed into the U.S., after fleeing El Salvador with her younger sister Gabi, afraid for their lives after the death of their brother Pablo. She has dreamed for years for a life in the States, perfecting her English, and getting lost in the imaginary world of her favorite TV show ‘Cedar Hollow.’ When it looks like her asylum request will be denied, and a new and curious opportunity to have it granted arises, Marisol will do just about anything for her and her sister to make that happen. And that’s by becoming a ‘grief keeper.’

    Debut author Alexandra Villasante has written an expertly crafted novel about the complexities of immigration, grief, sexual orientation, PTSD, depression, and, new love. There are even more nuanced topics woven in such as attitudes towards immigrants (legal and otherwise) being hired to do menial jobs in this country, our political climate, and how the LGBTQ community suffers in other countries (ie which would cause a young girl like Marisol to flee her home).

    This story gives so many deep, complex topics to talk and think about but at the core there is this beautiful story about Marisol and Rey (grieving her own brother) who are discovering their relationship with each other, including Marisol who would never have been allowed to explore this part of her back in the country she has fled. Persecution of LGBTQ youth and ‘conversion by rape’ is brought into the spotlight and from this story of family and migration, I was enlightened and educated.

    This is a novel about connections as well as grief, and Villasante sheds light on PTSD, and gives new meaning to the idea of taking someone else’s pain away so they don’t have to suffer. There are serious moral and ethical questions to the procedure that’s used so that Marisol will absorb Rey’s grief and pain (this actually brings quite a futuristic aspect to a very realistic story, which I really liked) and shows the extent that Marisol will go to gain entry to the U.S., and it’s heartbreaking.

    I read this book and I felt so many different emotions, and the very fact that it’s able to envelope immigration criticism, discussion on sexual identity, loss, classism, plus a loving sister relationship, AND a sci-fi twist, make it a VERY special book. I think it belongs on every school and YA library shelf everywhere and I hope many people will pick it up, even if it’s initially because of the insanely gorgeous cover (thanks to Kaethe Butcher and Kelley Brady), and that they end up holding it close to their hearts.

    *Trigger warnings/mentions: sexual assault, suicidal ideation, violence, bombing, PTSD

  • Lata

    . While I thought the book's resolution was a little too positive, considering the anti-immigration sentiment that's so prevalent now, I thought so much of this book was wonderful.

    Marisol and her younger sister Gabby are asylum seekers from El Salvador, staying in a detention centre in the US. Marisol feels very protective of her much more lighthearted sister, and is carrying plenty of grief and worry about their current situation, as well as the situation they're running from. Seizing an op

    . While I thought the book's resolution was a little too positive, considering the anti-immigration sentiment that's so prevalent now, I thought so much of this book was wonderful.

    Marisol and her younger sister Gabby are asylum seekers from El Salvador, staying in a detention centre in the US. Marisol feels very protective of her much more lighthearted sister, and is carrying plenty of grief and worry about their current situation, as well as the situation they're running from. Seizing an opportunity one day, Marisol and Gabby escape from the centre.

    They're picked up by a woman, Indrani, who gives Marisol a choice: participate in a study of some new technology and maybe they'll be granted asylum. Marisol agrees to the test, knowing that this isn't really a choice. The tech is to be used to help veterans suffering from PTSD; the sufferer and the non-sufferer both wear cuffs (the non-sufferer also has an implant) and the sufferer sends their pain and grief and fear to the non-sufferer.

    Instead of who she thinks she'll be helping, Marisol and Gabby are taken to the home of a young, suicidal woman, with whom Marisol is urged to connect. The two, after a few false starts, begin speaking, and find a common interest in an old Canadian tv series. Eventually Marisol even convinces Ray to wear the cuff corresponding to her own, and Marisol begins her job of assisting Rey deal with her grief and suicidal thoughts by channeling them to her brain.

    Author Alexandra Villasante brings us into the mind of Marisol; she's a resourceful young woman, but is also nursing deep pain from some unexplained experiences in El Salvador. She understands the bind she and her sister are in and makes decisions, knowing fully well that she doesn't have any good options. It's impossible not to be aware that Indrani, a child of immigrants, is complicit in the Marisol's abuse when Indrani coerces Marisol into agreeing to participate in the trial of the new, untested technology. Additionally, Villasante explores a number of other situations through the relationships in the story: income inequality, homophobia, grief, identity, rape, and mental health. At its heart, though, this is a lovely story of Marisol and her sister, and of Marisol and Rey.

  • Christy

    The number of emotions this book made me feel is off the charts.

    1. Angry. Would the US subject immigrants seeking asylum to experimental tests that could harm and re-traumatize them? Yes, this could be a thing.

    2. Relieved. So happy Marisol found Rey.

    3. Angry. Angry that we live in a world where this is so close to reality. We can’t let the concentration camps continue.

  • may ➹

    for once I could choose a book I actually wanted to read for school, and I didn’t hate it!!! it’s like not forcing students to read a book they don’t care about means they actually enjoy it!!!!!

  • Lola

    This is a beautifully-written and touching story about two sisters seeking asylum in America to escape death threats. Marisol would protect her younger sister Gabi at all costs so she agrees to become part of an experiment that has as aim to relieve someone from negative feelings by donating them to a recipient (Marisol).

    For a while there, I actually believed something like that might be possible. The author made everything sound so real. Her telling tugged at my heart—she really has a way with

    This is a beautifully-written and touching story about two sisters seeking asylum in America to escape death threats. Marisol would protect her younger sister Gabi at all costs so she agrees to become part of an experiment that has as aim to relieve someone from negative feelings by donating them to a recipient (Marisol).

    For a while there, I actually believed something like that might be possible. The author made everything sound so real. Her telling tugged at my heart—she really has a way with words. Besides, this sounds like something scientists would work to develop. Anything to rid people of their bad feelings. But some feelings must be felt and dealt with in order to understand ourselves and our needs better…

    I also enjoyed Marisol and Gabi’s interactions. I am all for sisterly dynamics and even bickering, especially now that my brother has moved out and I have no sibling left to annoy and be annoyed by. It’s nostalgic for me. You know what else is beautiful, though? The way the LGBTQIA+ theme is developed and the relationship between Marisol and her ‘‘donor.’’ It’s a slow-burn romance that is worth waiting for and easy to believe in.

    This book should be getting much more attention. I would be outraged at its under-the-radar status but I also love discovering hidden gems so you can see my dilemma. Regardless, please read it. You will not regret it.

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  • Artemis

    It grieves me to do this (I know, low blow, sorry), but I feel I have to get my thoughts on this book out there, since there are so many positive reviews of it, a differing opinion might help to balance things out and gain another perspective. Especially for a book that handles such delicate, multilayered, and important subject matters, and is constantly praised for its diversity.

    Because of this, my contrary review of 'The Grief Keeper' might be controversial, polarizing, and lots are going to

    It grieves me to do this (I know, low blow, sorry), but I feel I have to get my thoughts on this book out there, since there are so many positive reviews of it, a differing opinion might help to balance things out and gain another perspective. Especially for a book that handles such delicate, multilayered, and important subject matters, and is constantly praised for its diversity.

    Because of this, my contrary review of 'The Grief Keeper' might be controversial, polarizing, and lots are going to hate it.

    But it is my opinion, nothing more. And I will try to organise my thoughts as best I can. Feel free to disagree or agree.

    Another disclaimer: My views reflect the book and the book alone, not the author, who I'm sure is a lovely person with the best intentions.

    What I must say about 'The Grief Keeper' is that its premise is AMAZING. A teenage girl from El Salvador goes through hell and back to cross the American boarder for any chance of a better, safer, easier life, whilst protecting her younger sister who she would die for. Going back may mean a death sentence - both for causing the destruction of a gang that ruined her life, and for being gay. She would do anything to stay in America and provide for her sister, even if that means subjecting herself to an experiment that allows her to take/absorb the grief of others. She becomes a grief keeper, of sorts; for soldiers with PTSD, or any white person's grief and depression, as if she hasn't already suffered enough on her own.

    It's a brilliant reflection of America's dehumanizing immigration laws and boarder control, and its terrible treatment of migrants - "To live here, you must do something for us, you must fix our messes and take our shit, and do the jobs no privileged person with a choice wants. You have no right to complain; you're lucky we're giving you this much. You owe us." Its treatment of children absolutely needs to be highlighted as well. Not to mention there's the fact that trauma can't be measured, can't be judged on which is more "important" to focus on depending on the class of the person suffering, nor can it be "moved" just like that; healing doesn't work that way. Psychological "cures" are never so simple in human beings.

    So you can imagine how hyped I was to read 'The Grief Keeper'. Such high expectations are warranted to what truly sounds like the best idea in the world. I think it is partly because of this that I originally rated it three stars, since while it has flaws, its heart is in the right place.

    But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the bad outweighs the good in it in my mind. Top it off with my disappointment and you have a very sad, crushed reader in your hands.

    Now onto the book itself:

    First thing I noticed right away is that the pacing is so fast! We are immediately with Marisol Morales and her sister Gabi in an American asylum (in Pennsylvania, I think?) where she is being interviewed. No explanation on how they got there, or what they've been through. Even the interview barely scratches the surface. And nearly thirty pages later, the grief-keeping plot itself kick starts in New York, after a very short escape attempt from a detention center.

    Bits and pieces of the girls' journey are mentioned infrequently throughout, but it's all in small, inconsequential detail, and I felt detached from it. Marisol mentions arriving in Texas and another completely different place once, when she'd started crossing the boarder, and I'm like, "Huh? When did that happen? What happened there? How did they manage to get to these spots? Care to explain?" But no: 'The Grief Keeper' is extremely vague on details and important information that would be needed in order for the reader to feel grounded in its reality and believe in it and the heroine's plight.

    I mean, it's great that we are cutting to the chase and the main action directly, and not wasting too much time on infodumps, flashbacks, and excessive worldbuilding. But slowing down a little creates opportunities for atmosphere, investment, authenticity, and understanding the thought processes and emotional states of the characters; so that we care more about what is going on with them.

    A supersonic pace, vagueness, ill-advised lack of detail and explanations: These are some of the main issues I have with 'The Grief Keeper'. Speaking of...

    Once Marisol is told about the government-funded grief-transfer experiment (called the CTS project), she agrees to it almost immediately with no thoughts and feelings over the various (putting it lightly) implications. The barely-presented assumption is that she would do anything for her little sister to have a normal life in the States. Indeed, the loving sisterly bond is one of the best parts of the book. But I find it hard to stomach that Marisol would blindly agree to be a clear, obvious lab rat - a foreigner and illegal immigrant; meaning, an easy target for government agents - after everything she has been through, after all the distrust she's harboured, even if in the end she's given no choice.

    Some scientific methods on how the procedure of transferring grief and PTSD from one person to another are explained (something to do with neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain), even if they are not exactly accurate. That's okay, as it is science fiction, and metaphorical in a way that serves the story's political messages.

    What is never explained, however, is how Marisol can not only feel the emotions of her "donor", but also gain their memories of their traumatic event. She experiences everything firsthand, which supposedly should go away naturally very soon since the feelings are not attached to her personally, and they mean nothing to her, so in theory the experiment is overall harmless for everyone involved. She keeps the "retaining memories" part quiet at first because she doesn't want to disappoint her superiors with complicated news, and risk the experiment shutting down and her and her sister being deported. Never mind that science is all about the data, the unexpected and unplanned, and adapting to unforeseen developments all the time. It is kind of frustrating, and makes Marisol appear meek and a further tool of the US government.

    When the side effect is found out later in the book, it's hardly a footnote - nobody cares, no explanation for the phenomenon is given, and it's not mentioned again. Terrific.

    In addition to the pacing and ambiguity issues, before I even get to Marisol's main donor (her first is a soldier who was next to her in a courtyard at lunch, but then he disappears and is never mentioned again; see a pattern here?) and love interest, Rey, first I must write about the character inconsistencies. Marisol can be strong, independent, loud and snarky, every inch the protective older sister in a foreign country, backing down only when she has to. But also, depending on the plot, she's meek, obedient, and quiet when she should be screaming and protesting to the heavens, her self-preservation and esteem at a low and at odds with the girl who risked everything to get herself and her sister where they are now. It doesn't feel like a natural progression, like Marisol is suffering too much to bear in shouldering another girl's grief, and she's become numb, beaten down, depressed. It happens too quickly, unevenly and confusedly to flow well, with her character and the story.

    Then there's the people responsible for Marisol's suffering and the CTS project. Dr. Deng I think is meant to be the villain, with his snide, patronising remarks and behaviour, and predatory smiles. But he's not in the story much and he receives no comeuppance whatsoever. We last see him treating a relapsed Marisol without a care in the world at about the third of the way through the book, then he disappears and is never mentioned again.

    Indranie Patel is like the voice of reason and the sympathetic mentor to Marisol's case. I think. She really isn't that sympathetic to the girl at all, and in some instances her dialogue is barely distinguishable from Dr. Deng's, patronising and telling Marisol to trust her entirely with no explanation or answers to important questions. Everybody has flaws, and it is beaten into the ground that Indranie is a government employee and therefore morally gray at best. However I can't forgive the inconsistency, as I can't get a hold of just who Indranie is and why I should care about her, as I'm clearly supposed to.

    She doesn't care about Marisol, as evidenced when, later on, Marisol, clinically depressed and overwhelmed with Rey's grief (which never went away, big surprise, and nobody gives a damn), in a daze after a fight with Gabi, unconsciously tries to commit suicide. Indranie saves her, which is meant to be the moment we see her as a hero and can trust her, as her calm wall breaks down and she cries with regret and worry. But she spoils it with these lines:

    - Page 237

    What?

    - Page 237

    Your actions and words speak otherwise. You used and lied to a desperate immigrant girl and her little sister. Because you're in love with the grief-stricken rich white donor's father. You knew exactly what you were doing, when you should have known better.

    When Indranie initially came to the detention center, looking for the perfect candidate and lab rat:

    - Page 239

    Then, just when you think she might have a conscience:

    - Page 239

    She makes it all about her. No further comment is made about the treatment of the immigrants at the detention center, neither by Indranie nor by Marisol. Bizarrely, they don't care. Not enough, anyway.

    So the CTS project is skeevy, unethical, and has consequences. What I want to shout to these people is: What the hell did you expect?

    But that's not all. Indranie goes on to say how she picked up Marisol and Gabi,

    , walking from the center, and how it was bingo for her, and for the experiment

    Now she wants it all to end and for Marisol to free herself from the project. When Marisol refuses (out of masochism? Out of self-punishment? Out of martyrdom? Out of love for Rey? It's complicated, yet frustratingly vague, again), Indranie snaps:

    - Page 241

    That's right. She makes a teenage girl's pain and agony -

    - and subsequent attempted suicide, all about

    . How it would affect

    . This is never called out on, so I can't be sure if the author knew what she was doing with the way the above line, and the others, are worded.

    Screw you, Indranie Patel. I have no sympathy for you.

    At least there was an attempt to make you a three-dimensional character, unlike Dr. Deng.

    The one good thing about this chapter is this paragraph:

    - Page 238

    Simple. Powerful. Relevant. Effective. One of the best lines.

    Finally, I will talk about Rey, the donor. She is Marisol's age, conveniently, and stinking rich, white, and traumatised by the death of her twin brother at a concert, presumably by a terrorist attack. Yeah, it is not stated outright if it was a terrorist attack that caused the explosions, much less who had caused all those deaths and why. For a book this politically-charged, and one delving into how differently people grieve, that is a deplorable narrative choice. Specific details needed in order to understand your plot and characters, as well as logical reasons, are stupid and unnecessary, according to 'The Grief Keeper'.

    Anyway, I quite liked Rey and how real she was. Her grief, wanting to keep it to herself despite it killing her, and Marisol's eventual absorption of it, giving her a chance of lightness and happiness, felt natural and heartbreaking. Rey is unstable and unpredictable; highlighting how she copes with grief and how its sudden absence can be affecting her mind. She's numb, not totally there, not totally herself. It's unnatural, what is done to her.

    Marisol also lost a brother to violence back in El Salvador, and while for understandable reasons (trust me, this is something to savour in this book) she no longer cares for him and that he's gone, it is something she shares in common with Rey. I cared about the two devastated girls' blossoming relationship... at first.

    When Rey finds out about how the grief-transmutation is affecting Marisol (again, what did anyone expect?! Why didn't Rey suspect anything before? Marisol has obviously been depressed), she is beyond angry. Much more than Marisol, the victim, is. The rich American girl confronts Indranie. After Indranie explains how her own immigrant parents had to take the menial jobs they could to survive and live in the US, Rey says:

    - Page 276

    Here it gets very uncomfortable. In context, Rey has every right to be mad at these adults who are dictating her life and feelings, and Marisol's (Rey's father is present, and for some reason he doesn't volunteer for the CTS project himself, despite his own grief at losing his son). But we also have a rich American white girl undermining the experiences of brown-skinned immigrants. While the immigrants themselves remain meek and quiet about it. The subtext is unmistakable, even if unintentional and misguided. The plot progression has forced this to happen.

    Rey is angry for the benefit of Marisol, her lover. But Marisol herself hardly says a word in her own defense. She lets a white person do it for her. She is so self-pitying she doesn't care about herself anymore, and it reads as pathetic. Read this exchange:

    '

    ' - Page 278

    Uh... okay. Care to elaborate on that? No?

    And what Rey is doing here is basically whitesplaining. Or Americansplaining, or USsplaining, whatever you want to call it. She's whitesplaining to a poor immigrant girl about how important she is and that she matters, when the immigrant wouldn't be able to figure that out on her own, for whatever reason. Heck, Rey is the one to coin the term "grief keeper". It is one of Rey's white friends who'd compared Marisol to a lab rat in the first place; it apparently didn't cross our heroine's mind until then. But then it's glossed over and barely explored further.

    Marisol is given extremely little agency and assertion, not to mention self-awareness, in her own story. For someone who has gone through so much shit, she is rather too ignorant, gullible, naive, and eager to be used.

    Would Rey be so caring and sympathetic if she and Marisol weren't in love, I wonder? There is a huge class and privilege divide between them, and it's an elephant in the room that I can't shake off after this development.

    At that, the experiment is over (for them, but I seriously doubt it will not continue to be used on someone else, performed by the suspect Dr. Deng, but that is yet another detail that isn't explored further and is dropped before any implications can even manifest), and all is undeservedly forgiven.

    The last big issue I want to talk about is the ending. Or the lack of one. There is no climax; only Marisol finding her few-hours-missing sister at a party, mirroring how she'd sworn to protect Gabi after she was practically kidnapped and almost raped by a gang leader in El Salvador. Nothing happens at the party, however, and Marisol grabs Gabi and...

    Final chapter, which is four pages long, where Marisol is seeking asylum once again. In this interview she tells the truth, about why she left her home country as a refugee. Because of the threats made against her due to her sexual orientation, and against her sister who was almost a victim of corrective rape so she wouldn't turn out like Marisol. Then Marisol leaves and rides into the sunset with Rey and...

    That's it. End of book. No insights. No reflection on the nature of grief and that it can't be measured. No epiphany on the limitless layers - micro and macro - of human suffering and prejudice. No bookends - what happens now? Do the sisters live with Rey? Where's Gabi? Where's Dr. Deng? What about Marisol's mother, who is still in El Salvador and is waiting to be reunited with her daughters? What about Mrs. Rosen, who was supposed to have been the girls' guardian in the US, but who had died when they arrived? Marisol had kept the death a secret from Gabi until the middle of the story, and when it's out, it turns into a nonissue. One scarcely explored.

    It goes nowhere. Just like nearly every issue presented.

    'The Grief Keeper' ends as it begins: Vague, fast, with very little care for necessary details.

    No wonder it's only 306 pages long. For a book that should have been heavy.

    There isn't a cliffhanger, and I'm not sure about a sequel being planned. There is no suggestion of one.

    Wow this is a long review. I haven't even gotten to the girl-hate between Marisol and Rey's toxic friend Pixie, and how her male friends, Dave and Stitch, manage to be the most wonderful and compelling characters in spite of only appearing in one chapter, sadly. How Marisol speaks almost perfect English, and knows most English swearwords and literary references, yet doesn't know the words "bullshit" and "Frankenstein". She says "bull's shit", even after she's corrected. The illogicality of Gabi, who I like and is a sweet and interesting young character, not knowing that her sister is gay. When she must have known why she was targeted by the gang in El Salvador; why they had to leave their home to begin with. Hell, her brother and the gang leader had clearly stated to Marisol, in Gabi's presence, why they were doing what they were doing. Obviously the true reason is that the gang leader was a pedophile and a pervert (he flirted with Marisol when she was younger, too), and this was merely an excuse. The homophobia in this flashback scene is over the top, but I'm not in a position to judge on how it would actually have gone down in real life, so I won't criticise it.

    There might be more niggling things to comment on, but I've written enough for one review.

    Bonus positive: The maid characters are nice.

    So that's 'The Grief Keeper', from me to you. It held so much promise, so much potential. It could have been fantastic; it should have been fantastic. But unfortunately, its execution left me feeling cold. It is almost heartbreaking.

    This is yet another disappointment from this year that I will carry with me, no transmission tech required to relieve me of it. Only writing this honest review may release some of the burden.

    I had to have my opinion known. If you like this book, great. I'm happy that it's brought happiness to so many people.

    I'm not mad, I'm disappointed.

    Final Score: 2/5

  • Elise (TheBookishActress)

    Sisters who make it to America but learn they'll only be accepted if Marisol participates in a human study for PTSD treatment. holy shit. criticism of immigration, sisterly bonds, PTSD, eerie science!? guys I don't know about you but I'm feeling

    SUPER FUCKING HYPED

  • Fanna

    || F/F Romance

    || Immigration criticism

    || PTSD experiment

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