Bethany Neal’s My Last Kiss reminds me, in many ways, of We Were Liars, except that, thankfully, it’s not as impossible to review. And while it’s not quite as lyrical and compelling as Lockhart’s book, it’s still very gracefully, elegantly written, and the narrative style is totally fascinating. I found myself staying up all night to read it because I couldn’t bear going to bed without knowing what had happened, and that’s the marker of a good storyteller: Neal kept me hanging on, needing to follow the characters and the story.
Cassidy Haines died on the night of her birthday party, an epic event thrown at a friend’s house. When she wakes up next to her dead body, she realises that she has no guide to the afterlife and no idea why she’s stuck trailing her body, and then her friends, around. As she tries to puzzle together how and why she died, she realises that she was trapped in a tangle of deceit in the weeks and days before her death, and that everything she thought she knew about her friends and the people around her was wrong. She needs to discover the truth in order to move on, but that might prove difficult.
My Last Kiss switches between real-time narrative, with Cassidy observing her friends and former boyfriend dealing with the aftermath of her death, and flashbacks. Through her flashbacks, Cassidy recovers her memory of the jumbled times preceding her death, and comes to understand the larger picture surrounding the fatal series of events on an icy bridge that led to her fall — or was she pushed? — into a river. In real-time, she finds out about things she never knew or understood before, while in the past, she’s confronted with her own lies and manipulations, forcing her to think about who she was and how she related to the people around her.
She spends much of the book not just blocking her own memories from herself, but refusing to fully acknowledge her own misdeeds. Desperate to justify herself, and to depict herself as innocent, she tries to explain away puzzling memories and comments, but she eventually comes to the understanding that though she didn’t deserve to die, she wasn’t a passive observer or a saint in her last days of life either. Trapped within larger conflicts, some of which she didn’t even fully understand, Cassidy made a series of bad choices, and so did some of the people around her.
In real-time, her death is being framed as a suicide, and the police seem satisfied to leave it at that: Drunken teen falls from a rickety old bridge at night during a party, drowning in the river below. A bottle of schnapps floating next to her seems to seal the deal, making it obvious that she jumped out of despair or distress, possibly because her boyfriend was breaking up with her or she was stressed out by her parents’ divorce. Her parents, and the adults in the community, believe this version of events, but Cassidy’s friends aren’t so sure, especially her best friend, who is convinced that Cassidy was pushed — especially since she received an anonymous note suggesting exactly that.
As Cassidy drifts through real-time, only one person can see her: Ethan, her former boyfriend. The rest of the time, she’s forced to be a passive observer, even when her friends are in danger, or a simple question away from the truth. Being hidden has its advantages, though, as people talk frankly about their interactions with her in the days before her death under the belief that they’re alone or with trusted friends, and a very different picture of Cassidy’s life and death begins to emerge, finally forcing her to confront reality.
While Cassidy can remember her first kiss in vivid detail, the story of her last kiss becomes the pressing mystery of this book. She needs to find out who was with her on the bridge that night, and what changed between the moment she arrived at the party ready to celebrate and the instant she stood outside her body, witnessing her own broken form on the rocks of the river. She thinks that if she unlocks the secret of her last kiss, everything will become apparent, but in truth, it’s much more complicated.
Neal has fascinating, richly realised characters here, each with their own complex motivations and stories. I love that My Last Kiss is as much about the friendship as it is about the romance, following Cassidy’s life with her friends through childhood and up until her death, and highlighting the tensions, stresses, and hidden histories that lie deep within all friendships, especially in high school, when people are rapidly growing and changing. The interplay between her friends before and after her death conceals complex emotions and stories, creating a very contemporary, honest, raw feeling for a book that is fundamentally paranormal — My Last Kiss is very authentic and, at times, almost overwhelming in its depiction of teen life.
As Cassidy confronts the betrayal of the people she thought she knew and her own missteps, she learns a great deal about herself and the people around her, and she needs this knowledge in order to move on to whatever awaits her next. This opportunity for reconciliation and making peace may revolve around Ethan on the surface of the text, but I see it as being just as much about her, and her need to make peace with herself. The fact that she’s offered a chance to do that after death is a reminder that all of us could try for the same chance during life, rather than waiting until it’s too late.