You never forget your first love. This feels especially true of high school loves. Probably because teenage love is all consuming in a way that could only happen when the extent of your world is school, your family, and your friends. Without the minutiae of adult life getting in your way, it’s easy to pour your whole self into someone else.
Sarah Lyu’s I Will Find You Again deftly captures the volatile nature of teenage girls falling in love with each other for the first time. Chase Ohara and Lia Vestiano have been best friends for most of their lives. Then one day, they realized their feelings for each other had evolved into a romantic kind of love. Their relationship is a constant push/pull of emotions — sometimes their love isn’t strong enough to withstand the storms that come with being a teenager. When Lia dies tragically, Chase is left to piece together her death, but she begins to realize there’s a lot about Lia and their relationship that may not have happened the way she remembers.
Living in Meadowlark, a rich enclave of Long Island, NY, the girls are surrounded by nothing but the best. Lia is the adopted Korean daughter of rich white parents. Her mom Jo Vestiano is a TV cooking personality who has made an empire, and Lia is often the reluctant participant. Chase, who is the narrator of the book, is the daughter of a self-made Japanese businessman and a mom who works in advertising. The girls couldn’t be more different in terms of how they move through the world: Chase the determined overachiever, and Lia the one who just coasts along.
Lyu does a really great job creating complicated familial relationships. Both Chase and Lia have difficult relationships with at least one of their parents. Chase’s parents are divorced, and her father is largely absent. He works in corporate business, though it is never revealed exactly what he does. We do know that he travels a lot and left Meadowlark to move to New York City after the divorce to be closer to work. He pushes Chase to be like him, to be a model student so that she can go to Stanford and also work in business. She believes he’s disappointed in her because she didn’t do as well as she could have on the SATs. Lia and her mom have their own issues. Lia doesn’t want to participate in her mom’s show; she feels like a show pony brought out to boost ratings and make her mom look good. She doesn’t want to take over the family business, but her mom pushes her to find something she loves.
The pressure of the model minority plagues Chase throughout the book. Her father demands that she be exemplary: get the best grades, get into the best college, be the cream of the crop. He came from a poor Asian family and has spent his entire adult life fighting against that, to the detriment of his family. But what he doesn’t see, and what Chase doesn’t allow others to see, is what being the best is doing to her. For her, it’s always taking the right next step, because if she pauses for even a second, her whole life could fall apart like a losing game of Jenga. Her unrelenting quest for perfection is the driving force behind everything she does. She has to get the grades so she can go to Stanford, so she can be a CEO, so she can take over the world. It’s hard to tell if it’s really what Chase wants or what she believes she wants because she’s been told for so long it’s what she wants.
Lia, on the other hand, completely eschews the whole concept. She gets compared to Chase at school, but she doesn’t have to worry about being the best. And because she doesn’t have to worry, she seems to not to care about it either. All she has to do is make a call to one of her mom’s many connections to get an internship, an apartment, a job, whatever she needs. Unfortunately, it’s the dark, swirling undercurrent of how Chase approaches her relationship with Lia.
Mental health is one of the major themes that pushes the narrative forward in I Will Find You Again. While Lia is seen as a free spirit or untethered, in reality, she simply isn’t emotionally equipped to deal with the pressure of being the best. Her mental health is too precarious to push herself the way Chase does. Chase knows this, but it’s easy to forget when she’s so singularly focused. It’s not until the severity of Lia’s depression surfaces that Chase is smacked back to reality. Lia talks about wanting to not exist a lot. She feels like if she didn’t exist, she would be free from the pressure of greatness that she experiences from both Chase and her mom. It is clear that she’s suffering from some major depression she is constantly trying to cover. So Chase works with Hunter, the girl Lia was dating at the time of her death, to uncover more information about what Lia’s life was like before she died.
Hunter is the only person who has a clue of what Lia was thinking in the time leading up to her disappearance and death. At first, Chase remains wary of Hunter, who is equally wary of Chase. Unfortunately for both of them, Hunter has the answer to every question Chase has. But of course, nothing is ever that easy. Hunter makes Chase work for those answers, leading her down a very unexpected path. I don’t want to give too much away because it’s a major plot point, but Hunter isn’t the person Chase assumes she is.
Chases’s own mental health is precarious, but she doesn’t address it. The constant pressure from her dad causes her to take Focentra, an ADHD medication that she gets from fellow student Cole. Her dependence on the medication is something she doesn’t directly acknowledge. There aren’t enough hours in the day for her to get everything done, and thanks to the medication, she rarely sleeps, which has detrimental effects.
In the acknowledgements, Lyu thanks her therapist and the woman she roomed with during her own hospitalization for depression and suicidal ideation. It’s clear that it’s something she has intimate knowledge of; you can sense the care she gives the subject in I Will Find You Again. Before the acknowledgements page, there is a list of resources for people who may be facing some of the same challenges the characters face in the story. It’s great to see authors and publishers making the effort to include things like that in the book to make it easier for readers to find.
I Will Find You Again is without a doubt, a book about loss. About the loss of your best friend, your first love, and to a certain extent, your innocence. It’s a book that never shames its characters for the things they can’t control, and never tries to exploit the very real mental health struggles they face. But it’s also a book about perserverance. Lia may not overcome her mental health struggles. But Chase’s perserverance allows her to learn from Lia’s life and death that she is stronger than she gives herself credit for. It’s also a story about how love, that first all consuming kind of love, can help you heal.