Author: Jacquelyn Mitchard
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Young Adult
Publisher: Soho Teen
Publication date: January 2013
Hardcover: 239 pages
Allie Kim suffers from Xeroderma Pigmentosum: a fatal allergy to sunlight that confines her and her two best friends, Rob and Juliet, to the night. When freewheeling Juliet takes up Parkour—the stunt-sport of scaling and leaping off tall buildings—Allie and Rob have no choice but to join her, if only to protect her. Though potentially deadly, Parkour after dark makes Allie feel truly alive, and for the first time equal to the “daytimers.”
On a random summer night, the trio catches a glimpse of what appears to be murder. Allie alone takes it upon herself to investigate, and the truth comes at an unthinkable price. Navigating the shadowy world of specialized XP care, extreme sports, and forbidden love, Allie ultimately uncovers a secret that upends everything she believes about the people she trusts the most.
Stand alone or series: First in a planned trilogy
How did we get this book: ARCs from the Publisher
Format (e- or p-): We have both an e-ARC (via NetGalley) and a print ARC
Why did we read this book: We’ve been eagerly awaiting the launch of new YA line Soho Teen, leading off with this novel. A thriller/mystery, with a protagonist who has Xeroderma Pigmentosum? We were intrigued.
Juliet kept smiling. “Everybody dies,” she said, turning her face so it was out of the light. “But not everybody really lives.”
Sixteen year old Allie Kim has Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XD), a genetic disorder resulting in deficient repair of DNA damage caused by UV light. In other words, Allie has a fatal reaction to sunlight and sleeps away her daytime hours safely indoors, leaving the house only at night. With her two best friends, Juliet and Rob – who also have XD – the trio rules the small town of Iron Harbor, Minnesota under the cover of darkness. One summer night Juliet – the beautiful, daring, thrill-seeker of the group – convinces Allie and Rob to start doing Parkour with her, forming a tribe of three ‘Dark Stars’ performing impossible acrobatic stunts on the buildings and fixtures around Iron Harbor. But as their skills improve and they “trace” the upscale apartment complex of Tabor Oaks in the early, dark hours of the morning, Allie and her friends see something. A man, faceless in the dark but with dark hair streaked by a distinctive blonde lightning bolt, leans over the slack, gray body of a young woman in the supposedly unoccupied penthouse. Instead of telling anyone, the group decides to keep it secret, not sure exactly what they’ve seen – but Allie cannot shake the image from her mind, nor can she get rid of the feeling that something is very, very wrong. And then, Allie sees the same man again and the accidents start – tinged with threats, deaths, and secrets. It is up to Allie to figure out the identity of the man, and to save those she loves from a terrible end.
What We Saw at Night is the first book I’ve read from Jacquelyn Mitchard, and also the first book in a planned trilogy (I think?). And, for the most part with a few reservations, I enjoyed this book very much.
While What We Saw at Night is a thriller and mystery novel, involving a manipulative and powerful villain, it is (to me) actually much more of a character piece – a story of friendship and relationships between three friends as they strive to carpe that effing diem. I’ll admit, when I first started the book, I made a few jokes: What We Saw at Night, or, three kids with a terminal genetic disorder who run around at night doing Parkour – the youtube sensation of 2005, and most memorably conjures this scene in my mind:
But once you get past that little hump of initial ridiculousness, the parkour is actually an integral part of the story, and the characters’ various rationales for getting so caught up in the discipline (the rush of intensity and danger for Juliet, the intense focus and feeling of power for Allie, for example) makes sense. And in that vein, the strongest draw for What We Saw at Night is its characters, particularly its lead character, Allie. I loved the maturity of her character, her steely quiet resolve, and her truthfulness regarding her feelings. As our narrator, Allie’s voice defines the novel with her frank tone and observant manner – and I love that she never backs down from what she knows as true, even when others pressure her.
I also loved the relationship that unfolds between Allie and Rob, a friendship that turns into a crush that turns into a convincing and kind of beautiful first love story. (Also, can I just say how much I love the relationship between Allie and her mother, and their openness about sex and love and how AWESOME it is to see such a positive relationship, especially in YA fiction?!) But really, the defining relationship in this book is the one between Allie and her true best friend, Juliet. We all have known a Juliet. She’s someone beautiful and vivacious and daring, who you can’t help but love – but at the same time, she’s selfish and even cruelly dismissive at the same time. Juliet is an enigma and at times a bad friend, but…there are reasons and secrets for the things she does, and when we finally understand her full story, my goodness. You can’t help but feel for her.
But, for all of these things that are done well, there are a number of negatives, too. The identity of the villain is a great reveal, as are the secrets that define Juliet’s young life, but the mystery itself isn’t particularly well-plotted. The story starts to drag just when it should be building to a dramatic climax, and the novel’s last act is heartbreaking but also…muddled. It’s not clear what exactly has happened, or what the villain has done, or WHY the villain has acted so carelessly. In short, while this book sounds like a YA Rear Window Witness story, its execution decidedly is not Hitchcock-grade material.
AND THEN there’s the big fat cliffhanger ending, which is frustrating because obviously we want more – and to be honest, I expected the mystery would wrap up in a single volume. Because of this, the storyline feels protracted and the cliffhanger exploitative rather than inspired.
And yet. All these things said, I enjoyed the characters so much that I’ll definitely be back for book 2 – I just hope the plotting and writing is a little tighter the next time around.
We learn something new every day: I had no idea what Parkour was before reading What We Saw at Night. Yes, I seem to have missed the entire thing online and I don’t even remember that Office episode. With that aside out of the way: I will echo some of Thea’s thoughts on what works about What We Saw at Night.
The premise itself of fatally ill teenagers taking up Parkour as well as the rationale behind their dedication to the practice, were both engaging and believable, especially with regards to the latter. Allie is an interesting protagonist and a strong lead in terms of narrative voice – I loved her resolve to take up Parkour as a means to do something more active with her life, her loyalty to her friends and family and the eventual life-altering decision she makes. Above all, her narrative portrays really how she feels about living at night, the positives and negatives of living outside hours (what it means for her school life, as well as her possible future) and living on the brink of death. She is indeed observant and frank and just like Thea, I loved her open relationship with her mother and with her best friend turned love interest, Rob. That said, the character that truly shines for me is Juliet – vivacious and daring, experiencing the disease she shares with Rob and Allie in a wholly different way. Especially when mysterious ways, which at first felt forced and frustrating, is eventually revealed to be a terrible, heartbreaking secret she has been keeping and which is connected to the main mystery of the novel and makes one look at the character under a different light.
Beyond those positives: well, colour me mostly unimpressed with the execution of the story. As Thea said, the mystery itself isn’t particularly well-plotted in terms of its believability factor. The villain turns out to be a sociopathic predator, someone who is supposedly smart and schooled enough to have kept his activities a secret for a long time so it was really hard for me to buy how he let himself become involved in a game of teasing with a bunch of kids who, on their turn, acted/reacted in really frustratingly dangerous ways. Although it added an overall sense of danger and suspense to the story, it also felt forced. I concur with Thea that the last act, although heartbreaking, is also muddled and protracted and the surprising cliff-hanger was exploitative and unwelcomed because really and truly, the mystery is simply too thin to be spread over three books.
Another thing that stretched the limits of credulity is how, these three kids led a night-life mostly unaffected by anything: they navigated the town every night and the streets always seem to be empty; all three of their parental units seemed EQUALLY cool and unconcerned about what their kids were doing up all night. Even considering that theirs is not exactly a regular way of life, and even considering the emotional background of their disease and the adapting all families had to do for the sake of their kids, I thought almost unimaginable that all three sets of family would react equally to their children’s plight allowing them all the freedom in the world. That seemed extremely plot-convenient to me.
Finally, one of the main focus of the novel is how strong the friendship between the three characters was but I never truly felt their bond was as strong as I told it was – and this resulted in an absent of investment in this particular side of the story.
All things considered, although there are definitely positives aspects to What We Saw at Night, I am not really interested in learning what happens next.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
“Don’t move and don’t scream, no matter what you see,” Juliet told Rob and me. “Promise? On pain of death?”
“I promise,” I said readily.
Rob shot me a furious glance. I stuck my tongue out at him, and he smiled. I forced myself to shrug with a chilly deadpan.
What else was I supposed to do?
Juliet was a force of nature. I could ask her why we might scream. I might as well chew on the air. She wouldn’t tell us. She was my best friend—in fact, aside from Rob, my only real friend—and the sum total of what I truly knew about her would have filled a teaspoon. She’d probably spent two hundred nights at my house, and I’d spent another hundred at hers. None of that mattered. I was always guessing at how headstrong she was and how unattainably different . . . and we were about to see that proved all over again.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: Make sure you stop by author Jacquelyn Mitchard’s Inspirations and Influences post today for a chance to win a copy of What We Saw at Night!
Ana: 5 – Meh
Thea: 6 – Good, Recommended with reservations
Reading Next: The Archived by Victoria Schwab
Buy the Book:
(click on the links to purchase)