Review—Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner

In this poignant debut by Paula Garner, Otis and Meg, once the closest of friends, and a true and pure example of young love, must learn how to navigate the intimidating chasm of loss between them.

Otis is on his way to being a champion swimmer, helped along by the surly, sweary Dara Svetcova. She thinks he can qualify for the Olympics, a dream she once nurtured until a tragic accident took her arm. He is constantly haunted by memories of his younger brother Mason, who died years ago, and his best friend Meg, who disappeared soon after Mason’s death.

Garner’s adept storytelling details Otis and Meg’s eventual reunion, as well as Otis’s continuing struggle to make sense of his grief and find a way to heal, though he admits that the idea of truly healing from a tragic loss is a myth.

Otis’s persona and grief are so intricately tied together, and Garner’s portrait of him so complete, that it was nearly impossible at times not to be moved to tears. Meg’s story is essential to understanding Otis, and the pacing of the novel reveals a little at a time, enough to create feelings of absolute empathy in the reader.

The complication, as in almost any story about grief and healing, is Otis not knowing the whole story, and his lack of understanding about Meg’s own grief over Mason and her feelings about his death.

Another strength of Garner’s incredibly nuanced novel is the implicit message that there is no such thing as happily ever after, because no one is perfect. We can, however, make the best of what is given to us and the people that love us.

Jacket Copy

How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief or be swept away by it.
Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protege of eighteen-year-old Dara part drill sergeant, part friend who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.

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