When their mother dies suddenly, hit by a drunk driver, Will’s brother Adam finds refuge in friendships and “getting on with life.” Will’s father throws himself into his work so that he doesn’t have to face lonely nights. But as for 17-year-old Will, he isn’t content with picking up his life where it fell off a cliff that day. He’s always approached life from an unusual perspective; and now he’s approaching death the same way.

Will’s many questions—”Why do some get to live, and others die?” “What is my life worth?” “Can one life replace another?”—lead him on a wide-ranging journey, as he discovers the ways in which ancient and modern philosophers, Eastern and Western religions and ordinary people have sought their own answers to these fundamental questions. Along the way, Will also experiments with alcohol, drugs and sex, hoping to find in his body the answers to the questions that plague his mind.

At times, Will’s actions border on self-destructive, even as he falls in love for the first time. Will’s approach to his budding relationship may have readers asking their own questions, such as, “Is it possible to open yourself to love when you’re closed in by grief?” Will’s behavior is not always sympathetic or likable, but his process—both the things he does and the questions he asks—is a genuine, honest portrayal of how a thoughtful teenager might approach loss.

At times, the brief quotes from philosophers that Hills interweaves into the narrative can seem like sound bites, a superficial Cliff’s Notes version of Philosophy 101. When Will considers a book of aphorisms, however, he dismisses the sort of shallow satisfaction promised by a single sentence. What Will’s story demonstrates most successfully is the ongoing relevance of life’s greatest questions—and questioners—to today’s problems. Like countless thinkers before him, Will doesn’t find answers to every question, but that’s okay. His thoughtful approach to life and death might inspire readers to continue considering these fundamental questions, or even to come up with a few of their own.

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