Title: So Shelly
Author: Ty Roth
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Until now, high school junior, John Keats, has only tiptoed near the edges of the vortex that is schoolmate and literary prodigy, Gordon Byron. That is, until their mutual friend, Shelly, drowns in a sailing accident.
After stealing Shelly’s ashes from her wake at Trinity Catholic High School, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie island where Shelly’s body had washed ashore and to where she wished to be returned. It would be one last “so Shelly” romantic quest. At least that’s what they think. As they navigate around the obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly’s and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her tragic and premature end.
I was a little uneasy about reading this book at first. I remember reading a review of it on its Goodreads page, and the word ‘incest’ was mentioned. It both interested me and made me slightly shy away from the book. But because it seemed interesting, there were decent reviews of it, it focused on modernizing three real-life poets, and it was a debut author book, I decided to try it anyway. And, despite all the weirdness in the book (and trust me, there’s a lot), I’m glad I read it because it was an interesting and thought-provoking book.
Even though the book is from the point of view of John Keats, who is, of course, based on John Keats the poet, the story seems to focus mostly on Gordan Bryon, a modernized version of the poet Lord Byron, which means the story of Shelly, based on Percy and Mary Shelley, is also intertwined throughout the book. Most of what we hear about, though, is Byron, because to understand the story of Shelly, which affected John, we first need to know the story about Byron. It’s his life that makes the story what it is, and that’s it’s the main focus. By hearing about Byron’s story, we understand what happened to Shelly and why the book begins with the boys stealing her urn from the memorial.
Because we need to know about Byron’s backstory to understand what’s happening in the present, a lot of the chapters focus on his childhood and life both before and after he knew John. It was a little confusing at first, since most chapters would alternate between the past and the present, but it made it interesting, and helped the reader understand why Byron was the way he was, and therefore why Shelly and John both acted in certain ways. John told the past of Byron mostly through stories that he had been told from Shelly, Byron’s next-door-neighbor and childhood friend. And even though Byron’s stories were certainly strange – all the incest came from his past, which shares a lot with Lord Byron’s real life, according to the little author’s note at the end of the book – his life could never be described as dull. Though I found the beginning of the story sort of slow, things did end up happening that sped it up for me and made me want to read in order to find out what was going to happen.
I really liked the character of John, even though he wasn’t as visible in the stories as Gordan was. By the beginning of the book, he’s already lost both parents, his brother is dying and will be dead soon, and he’ll probably end up in an early grave himself. He’s obsessed with death, and so there are plenty of statistics sprinkled throughout the book, all related to ways to die. Because of his very-real morality, John has an interesting look on life. Even though he’s only in high school, he looks at life like he’s almost at the end, because, most likely, he already is. But Byron helps him realize that rather than wallow in death and self-pity, he needs to live his life. Reading all of his thoughts about life and death, especially in the prologue, which is written from his point of view after all of the events of the book happened, makes me think about the topics in a different light myself.
So, even though this was a very strange book at times, and sort of slow in the beginning, I am glad I read it. Modernizing the three real-life people (technically four since Shelly is a combination of two people) makes the story really interesting, and helps sort of give a history lesson without totally boring the reader. If Ty Roth writes another book like this, I’ll definitely be in line to read it.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars