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Book Review: Can’t Look Away by Donna Cooner

Publisher’s Description: 

Torrey Grey is famous. At least, on the internet. Thousands of people watch her popular videos on fashion and beauty. But when Torrey’s sister is killed in an accident — maybe because of Torrey and her videos — Torrey’s perfect world implodes.

Now, strangers online are bashing Torrey. And at her new school, she doesn’t know who to trust. Is queen bee Blair only being sweet because of Torrey’s internet infamy? What about Raylene, who is decidedly unpopular, but seems accepts Torrey for who she is? And then there’s Luis, with his brooding dark eyes, whose family runs the local funeral home. Torrey finds herself drawn to Luis, and his fascinating stories about El dio de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

As the Day of the Dead draws near, Torrey will have to really look at her own feelings about death, and life, and everything in between. Can she learn to mourn her sister out of the public eye?

Karen’s Thoughts:

It is interesting to note that just as I have been spending a lot of time witnessing and thinking about YouTube culture (see here and here), I started reading this book which demonstrates the power of YouTube culture. 

Torrey Grey is uber-famous and she did it all by shopping, something that she loves. She developed a name for herself by posting a variety of fashion vlogs, including the ever present haul video. A haul video is where you post a video of all the stuff you bought on your most recent shopping trip. In the book community, we have book haul videos, particularly after a conference or a book festival. The concept of the haul video is really kind of clever because it ends up being advertising for whatever product you share, whether it be particular clothes or the title of books. Fashion vloggers are a really big deal in the YouTube community, with Bethany Mota being perhaps one of the most famous.

One particular day, Torrey is going out with her best friend Zoe to film a vlog, but they need a camera person. This is why Torrey’s sister happens to be there on the day she is killed; she didn’t want to be, but sisters can convince you to do a lot of things you don’t want to do. While arguing about the video, Miranda decides to take off and is hit by a drunk driver.

What follows is an intense exploration of guilt and grief. Torrey’s family ends up moving. Her mom is not handling her grief well at all. And Torrey’s grief is mixed in with intense guilt because she can’t help but think, if only . . . If only she hadn’t made her sister come with her that day. If only they hadn’t have fought. If only, If only, If only . . .

For Torrey, the process is further complicated by her Internet fame. The press hounds the family. And then a damaging video is uploaded, putting Torrey in the unattractive spotlight. Celebrity culture likes to eat its own, and there are far too many people willing to tear someone down, even if they are grieving.

In her new home, Torrey is wrestling not only with grief and guilt, but with the challenge of forming new relationships. She immediately identifies the school’s queen bee and sets out to get her foot in the door of the popular crowd, but she also finds herself attracted to a boy named Luis. Luis is definitely not in the popular crowd. But it is Luis that may help her find a way to live with her loss.

Cooner gives us an inside look at YouTube culture from the point of view of a teen who has become a nontraditional celebrity, highlighting some very interesting cultural phenomenons. She also manages to put the reader in situations that question the idea of popularity without being overly preachy about it. And through it all is the deep emotional exploration of a family that is grieving and the guilt that can haunt one in the midst of loss. This is a fast, satisfying read full of some intense emotions. Torrey isn’t always likable, which makes Can’t Look Away even more interesting as we realize that even the most unlikable people can hurt and we can still feel sympathy for them. Definitely recommended.

Published in August by Scholastic Point. ISBN: 9780545427654

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