Author: Adam Silvera
On September 5th, a little after midnight, Rufus Emeterio and his buddies are beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new, gangster wanna-be boyfriend. And they’re enjoying it. That is – until the call comes through. It’s Death Cast, and they are so sorry to lose him, but sometime today Rufus will die.
Across town another teenage boy, Mateo Torrez, is reading books and playing video games alone (again) thinking about his comatose father. That’s when he gets the same call. Today is his last day on earth, and he has no one to share it with.
When these two boys, one on the run from the police and the other lonely and examining a life wasted, connect via the Last Friend app, they determine to fill as much life and possible into however many hours they have left. But changing the habits of a lifetime for Mateo is hard and ultimately more terrifying than death, and Rufus never got to say goodbye to his friends and to the girl he still loves. With time ticking by, the two boys join ranks to discover the life in death and what really matters to them at the very end.
I first came across They Both Die at the End when I visited New York and realized a dream, going to The Strand bookstore. This was one of the many purchases I managed to somehow squeeze onto a Greyhound bus on the way home, and I bought it purely for its cover and its blurb about a not-so-distant future when death can be successfully predicted by an institute, although not thwarted. This new reality is supposed to be all about second chances, but what does it mean for two young men just growing into life? What about all their unanswered traumas? All the goodbyes they need to say and those they cannot? What about a last chance for friendship and even love?
The story premise in They Both Die at the End was unique, and the sci-fi element of Death Cast nicely interwoven into a world that, otherwise, isn’t much different from our own. It would have been nice to hear a bit more about Death Cast and how these predictions are made, but Rufus and Mateo have no time to question something that has always been there, feared, but pushed to the back of their minds. They only have a limited amount of time for questions and, necessarily, those questions are going to be about who they really are.
The two characters are both very separate types of people, and I’ll admit that Mateo, who many of the reviewers bonded with and wanted to protect, drove me up the wall. I recognize that he is young and an ultimately fearful person long before the death knell literally rang and woke him at midnight . . . but on your last day on earth, must you spend pages after pages fearing the chance of living, even a little? With death and disaster assured now, take the freedom of last chances. Many times I just wanted to reach into the pages and shake the character.
This is where Rufus comes into play. Rufus was the character I enjoyed more, although his pop-culture speak got a little old (really, how many times can you say yo and like and still be real?) Rufus’ attitude, however, is a comfort. He’s a kid with far more trauma than the boy in the bubble last friend he has made, and one that has a charming pull that is full of life and yet ultimately grounded by the temporality of things. His back story also has a lot more content too.
Where They Both Die at the End lost me though was the focus, the pace, and the romance. I’ll get to each of these in turn. First, the focus. Here we have two people who know they are going to die, yet we only get one half-assed chapter as they discuss mortality, their beliefs (or lack thereof) in God, and how they see the afterlife. Mateo, predictably, comes up with something strange and childlike – an afterlife where everyone’s life plays as a movie and you can go watch the movie life of your friends. This conversation actually takes place in the open grave being dug for Mateo. Rufus believes in nothing. The characters nod sagely, and then head off to find some last minute fulfillment. What? How can such a small portion of a book on death talk so little about what that actually means? Regardless of your faith, I think it’s creditable to say that with this sort of sentence hanging over your head, the characters would spend more time thinking through what they really believe, thinking through what their mortal end means, and pondering if they’re ready for that, instead of chucking in a few flippant answers and going to a party. It doesn’t ring true.
Secondly, the pace. This goes hand in hand with the nihilism that They Both Die at the End develops early on. Life is the only meaning there is; Mateo has wasted pretty much all of his and Rufus has had a good life, yet one filled with unresolved trauma (the loss of parents). Since there is no conversation on the hereafter, it’s up to the characters to populate the rest of their time with . . . something. And they do. But it drags. They go for a last meal at a favorite café. They ride the metro and fall asleep. They visit friends and hospitalized relatives. They go to a place especially for “deckers” (i.e. the people who have received the Death Cast notification) and have disappointing travel simulations. Ad infinitum. Each piece is well done, although infinitely, crushingly sad as the author lays it on thick about how this is the end for the characters. Period. Death is just it buddy. It’s both sad and claustrophobic, and yet not that entertaining from a story prospective. Nothing the characters do really changes their arc that much, with the exception that Mateo finally starts to come out of himself and stops avoiding all interactions and events for fear of hastening a death that cannot be avoided. Although this only happens at the very end.
And finally: the romance, which ties into both the focus and the pacing. Firstly, I wasn’t aware that this is an LGBT book (although yes, the sticker on the book says it is.) I have the tendency to sometimes grab “mystery books,” picking titles that are interesting or covers that please me and trying to remain ignorant of everything else. Sometimes this leads to grand new discoveries (the Father Tim series) and sometimes absolutely horrific, dull, endless books (Catcher in the Rye – shudder.) In this case, it lead to me being unhappy with the author’s intended message/moral. Full disclaimer: same sex relationships go against my faith. If your worldview has a similar stricture, then you also will not like the ultimate message of this romance. You also probably won’t like the nihilism. Caveot emptor.
That aside, if LGBT literature is your thing, this romance certainly won’t be. There is NO organic development and the characters remain laughably platonic. The sudden love comes out of left field, especially since we have never been given much insight into Mateo’s leanings. Rufus conveniently forgets the girl he has been moaning about FOR THE ENTIRE DAMN BOOK. At the end, the characters are happy to hold each other and kiss. And that’s it. These are teenagers. About to die. One of whom is a virgin. Come on.
Ultimately, They Both Die at the End has its good points, and while the story was hardly perfect, and it definitely disagreed with pretty much everything I value from a moral standpoint, I can’t say that it was horribly done. But . . . it could have been so much more. More about Death Cast and how that works would have helped build the world, and an increased pace as Mateo and Rufus go through their last day would have helped keep the reader engaged. A romance that was more organic and built slower, and wasn’t unrealistically platonic, would have helped the author make both his point (which, yes, I disagree with) and leave us with an impression of two real people. Not a terrible read, but ultimately this book just isn’t for me, and I doubt I’ll suss out any of the author’s other works.
– Frances Carden
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