Author Neal Shusterman is coming to visit my daughter's school this month. Could I be more excited? Her language arts teacher mentioned this, almost in passing, on Curriculum Night. As soon as the words crossed her lips, I looked down at the book I'd brought with me to read between presentations: Bruiser. Could it be? Really? My absolute fav-o-rite author, coming to central Ohio in just a matter of weeks? If you've read my blog in the past, you know that I've reviewed a bunch of Shusterman's books: Unwind, Everlost, Everwild, and now Bruiser. Each is a kind of gift from Shusterman to future writers and present readers, an offering of what great writing sounds like and how it makes us feel.
Bruiser is a sharp, potent guzzle of a book. It's not a sweeping epic kind of story like the Skinjacker Trilogy books. Instead, Bruiser focuses intensely on three characters, their interactions, conversations, and growth. The plot moves forward tentatively, in short puffs and peaks, until the achingly beautiful climax squeezes and twists the reader's heart like a soaked sponge.
Sixteen year-old Tennyson is not happy when his twin sister Bronte starts dating Brewster Rawlins, a hulking loner known at school as the Bruiser. Bronte has a soft heart for stray dogs, and at first she thinks of Brewster as just that- a stray, ripe for rehabilitation. But the twins find that there is much more to this painfully shy and reclusive boy than meets the eye. Brewster lives with a horrible secret, an unexplainable power that causes him to absorb any pain experienced by the people he loves. As Brewster comes to love Bronte and befriend Tennyson, the twins find that their cuts and bruises suddenly disappear and show up on Brewster's body. But it's not only the physical pain that Brewster takes from them; he takes their anger, hurt, and sadness, too. And he's been doing so all his life, subsuming the painful abuse suffered by his little brother Cody at the hands of their alcoholic uncle.
Bruiser is narrated in alternating chapters by Tennyson, Bronte, Cody, and Brewster. Each voice is distinct and believable, particularly Brewster's. His chapters, told in free verse, are poetic, tragic, and deeply introspective. And Tennyson evolves beautifully from an arrogant jock and bully to a compassionate young man. At the heart of the book are the themes of sacrifice and love: Would you sacrifice your own happiness if it meant that those you love would feel no pain? Is Brewster's power to take away the pain from those he loves a gift or a curse? And how can a person be happy knowing that someone he or she loves must feel so much pain? Bruiser is an intense, almost violently emotional experience, and Shusterman knows just where to stick the knife. I can recall few books where I cared so deeply about such an initially unreachable character. The last chapters are at once torturous and touching, anguished and hopeful. This book will stay with you long after you've read the final page.
Now that I am the middle school librarian, I am in charge of bringing in a visiting author to our school every other year. I know just who I'll be booking for the 2012-2013 school year. I hope Neal Shusterman likes central Ohio because he'll be seeing quite a bit of it in the coming months and years!