Friday, July 15, 2016

Exit, Pursued by a Bear, by E. K. Johnston

This Canadian YA author keeps astonishing me with every new book she writes. Her books are so completely original in setting, premise, plot, writing, that there's no way to compare them to anything else, except to other E.K. Johnston books. And this new one is completely different from anything else she's written. For one thing, it's contemporary realism. For another, it's a retelling (sort of) of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale.

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's lesser-performed works, probably because the plot is kind of weird and disjointed. Johnston takes the essence of it—a queen falsely accused of infidelity, the king who refuses to believe her, and her loyal friends who stand up for her in a number of different ways—and transforms it into a YA novel about a cheerleading team captain and the friends and family who stand by her when she goes through a traumatic event. (The book blurb tells you what the event is, but I refuse to be spoilery, because knowing ahead of time what happened affected the way I read the first part of the novel, and I would spare you that if it were only up to me.)

If I were an expert on The Winter's Tale, I would probably be even more amazed at the clever things Johnston does with Shakespeare's plot, but even if you've never heard of Shakespeare, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a brilliant, compelling story that everyone should read. It made me cry—but I was crying with happiness. The strength and fierceness of Hermione and her best friend Polly were overwhelmingly beautiful. Not to mention every other character who was there for Hermione in whatever way they were able to be, from her teammates to her devastated parents to the police officer to her therapist.

And you might say, well, it's not very realistic then, is it, because most people who go through something like this face a lot of rejection and feeling alone. And that's true. But Johnston chooses to show us what it would look like if someone did get support, and I think that's incredibly important. Hermione's healing process is slow and difficult, there's a lot of grieving that has to happen, and there are certainly people who make it worse (including the character named after the king, for obvious reasons), but this is a powerful parable that healing can happen, that an event like this does not have to define a person for the rest of their life.

I fear I am utterly failing to convey what a good book this is. (I was reading it in the bath, and I was reading for so long the bathwater got icy cold and I didn't even notice.) Hermione's voice is spot on; her friends are all real, interesting, varied people; her relationships with everyone are the messy, complicated relationships people have. I cared about every single character in the book. But, oh, Polly. Polly I loved. You have to meet her. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a Polly in their lives. Have I mentioned fierce?

It's a stunningly positive book. I want to emphasize this, because you might not want to pick it up if you hear about the trauma, the grief, etc. I know I probably wouldn't have read this if I didn't already love E.K. Johnston's work, and I would have missed out on so much.

Read it if you love good writing. Read it if you love strong female friendships. Ditto kick-ass heroines. Read it if you've ever known someone who went through something difficult and you didn't know how to help them. Give it to your best friend. Make your daughters read it. And your sons.

I will read anything this woman writes.


  1. Oh I DO love female friendships. I don't read a lot of books that deal with what I suspect the traumatic event in this one is, because honestly I have to think about that stuff enough in real life. But your recommendation of Leah Bobet was so spot on that I am going to break my rule IN THIS ONE CASE. Because I trust you.

    1. OK, now I'm scared you won't like it! But I really think you will.

  2. I happen to love The Tempest. What a great concept for this book. I just ordered a copy. I have to read it after reading your review. Oh, and I love the title. Terrific. Thanks for this review.

  3. I would have skipped this too if I already didn't love E.K. Johnston. And it is SO GOOD. Everything we should be.