Our Wild and Precious Lives by A.G. Russo is heartfelt and heart-wrenching – an unexpected knockout.
The YA genre often lacks the emotional depth of adult fiction, and with good reason – young adults might be unable to appreciate traditional “adult” themes. In A.G. Russo’s emotional masterpiece, Our Wild and Precious Lives, the boundaries of this genre are bent and even broken in certain places. The mature tone and depth of feeling are impressive, to say the least. The setting of Cold War Germany and the thoroughly developed characters lend the book a great deal of authenticity, and it would come as no surprise if this story has been pulled somewhat from personal experience.
Tom and Melly are two army brats dragged to a base in Germany by Jim, their father, and his Italian war bride, as tensions rise in the post-World War II decade. Instead of this being a slow, historical account of an enlisted man stationed abroad, the focus of the book is entirely on the children, but the clouds of war are always looming, and being dropped into a foreign country is never easy. Of the two children, Melly earns most of the attention in the narrative, but what makes the book special is the connection between the two children. Such tender moments of brothers and sisters are rarely captured in literature, and it is impossible not to become a part of their world.
More impressive, however, are the issues that Russo chooses to tackle in the story, clearly not shying away from the brutal truths of that Cold War era. Alcoholism, cultural isolation and abuse aren’t common topics in YA fiction, but the author handles these concepts within difficult scenes and personal revelations from Melly and Tom with incredible care and empathy.
The complex personalities of the two children are unpacked beautifully over the course of the novel, and readers watch them grow up as the years pass. They face not only the typical challenges of teenagers, but also the alienation of their home, the dangers of their generation, and the instability of their family. The pair are forced to adapt and rely on themselves and one another to survive. Their mutual love of books and their desire to be writers makes them introspective and passionate, without seeming disingenuous, and they both appear wise beyond their years.
As an adult reading this book, there are certain moments that seem slightly juvenile, but that is to be expected. The majority of the writing, however, is excellent; the descriptions are unique and subtle, the dialogue is believable, and the flow of the story is natural and smooth. Some sections are a bit heavy on narration, but it is meticulously edited and engaging from start to finish.
The close of the novel is shocking, and also far too good to spoil. Russo pushes the boundaries of the characters (and the readers) to an unforgettable level, achieving what so many authors fail to do: sincere emotional investment. To protect the person you love most in the world, most people would do anything, and Our Wild and Precious Lives reminds us how strong the bonds of family and childhood can be.
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