Since sixteen-year-old Riley Strout lost her mother two years ago, her saving grace has been her quirky little family in the grief support group she joined as a freshman. Jay, Kate, and Noah understand her pain; each lost a loved one, and they’ve stuck together in spite of their differences, united by tragedies only they understand.
When Riley thinks she spots her mother shopping in a grocery store, she fears she is suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress. Then Jay and Kate report similar experiences. Only Noah hasn’t had some kind of vision, which is perhaps why he’s become so skeptical and distant.
When Noah disappears, Riley fears she’s lost another loved one. As they frantically search for him, she, Kate, and Jay are drawn into the mystery surrounding a relic that belonged to Jay’s dead father and contains clues about the afterlife. Riley finds herself wrestling with her feelings for both Noah and Jay—which have become clear only in Noah’s absence. If Riley is to help those she loves, and herself, she must set things right with the one she’s lost.
As an avid reader, it’s always refreshing when you come upon a book that completely takes you by surprise. Going into Signs of You, I never really knew what to expect, especially since it was a debut novel. It baffles me now why this book isn’t more acclaimed and hyped because oh my goodness, it’s brilliant.
From the very first chapter, the voice establishes itself right away. It’s strong and emotional, which made me interested and invested in Riley’s narrative then and there. Riley feels like she’s going crazy when she sees her dead mother at the grocery store. Her distress about this was unmistakable and definitely left me longing to know what unfolds from this inciting event. Moreover, Riley’s grief and guilt from losing her mother because of a tragic accident after a huge fight, really resonated. Emily France portrays grief in such a genuine way and I love how she ties it all together later on as the plot thickens.
“That old, familiar ache fills my body. I know it’s grief. I’ve lived with it for over two years, and I know it so well. It’s like a roommate who never leaves the house, like the brother I never had… And sometimes, you almost forget he’s there. Almost.”
Perturbed and feeling haunted, Riley turns to her closest friends, Jay, Kate and Noah, who understood tragedy just as much as she did, having each lost a loved one. To her disbelief, she finds out they’ve been seeing their own dead family members as well. Connected by their heartache and adversities, the group ventures to find out the reason for their strange visions.
One of my favorite things in the book was Riley’s relationship with her friends. I think it’s so rare and beautiful to find people who truly understand you and what you’ve been through and who are as close as family. Each character was different in their own way, but I really admired how tight-knit their friendship was, that they would travel lengths to find Noah when he suddenly vanishes later on.
“My deepest, darkest fear is that maybe we don’t ever get over some things. maybe we just carry them around, permanently, these heavy, dull aches in the heart. And maybe they don’t heal; maybe we just learn to work around the pain.”
I loved how being there for your friends is given such a huge importance in the book, as well as the fact that people connect not because of shared grief but because they share what grief has let them see. Aside from the friendships, I also loved the father-daughter dynamics in this book. Riley’s relationship with her dad was complex but also very real, especially after mourning Riley’s mom for two years.
“If I’d never been hurt, if I’d never been through anything, I might have only seen the bright stars like Sarah and those other super popular girls. And they’d blot out the really beautiful people. The people who sometimes get overshadowed—the intricate flares and filaments.” He looks at me, directly at me, with those eyes. “I wouldn’t wish what has happened to us on anyone. But if it hadn’t happened, I would never have seen you—a beautiful, complicated loop of light.”
Another thing that I think Signs of You portrays really well was unrequited teenage love. Riley, who’s been crushing on Jay for the longest time, was a true image of a girl pining over her clueless guy best friend, one thing I’m sure a lot of readers will find relatable. Unrequited love aside, I loved the light romance in the book so much. I pretty much shipped Noah and Riley since the first quarter of the book! The brief but sweet happily-ever-after was so so gratifying that it made my heart soar.
“And I kiss him. Like really kiss him. I’ve never kissed a boy before, not like this. And I feel it. From the top of my head, past my glued-together heart, all the way down to my unpainted toenails. I’m two places at once—forever in this moment, on this porch, grounded by this kiss, this warmth, this now-ness, and simultaneously soaring in the storming sky. Swooping like dizzy birds, unafraid of rushing dark clouds. And then I soar twenty feet higher, let the ground get smaller and smaller—because he’s kissing back.”
The huge mystery of the book revolves around the reason why Riley and her friends are seeing spirits and I was perplexed in the best way but also incredibly satisfied with how it was explained. Seriously, the whole mystery plot was remarkable. I love how so much of it was trying to decrypt an enigmatic ancient relic related to St. Ignatius. The author did such a great job looking into this aspect and I admit that I was totally captivated by the mystical elements in the book that I even did my own research right after reading. It was just so fascinating and I think the mystery and mystique are what makes this book so memorable and one of a kind.
“Portae ad caelum: doorways to heaven. We’re all doorways. To the other side. That’s what the dead are trying to do. To cross through us.”
But what makes Signs of You so special for me is how I was absolutely moved by the amazing introspection on the way spirits influence us and how we can let ourselves be their portals by truly living. I’ve never been a spiritual person but I loved how this brought out this side of me. I was touched by how lovely and inspiring the spirituality in the story was written that I was actually in tears after reading one of the best scenes in the book. I’m so impressed by Emily France’s poignant prose and I wish more YA books grappled with spirituality so teenagers can get in touch with their own beliefs.
“Missing my life is no way to remember you,” I whisper. “Living is.”
To sum up, Signs of You is a transcendent story dealing with grief, mystery and spirituality. With vivid characters, emotional scenes, powerful writing and an engrossing mystery, it reminds us how we can remember the people we’ve lost. This is one heck of an unforgettable debut and I can’t wait to read whatever Emily France rights next!