I honestly have no idea how to review this book, and that doesn’t happen often with me. Between Shades of Gray is something entirely outside my previous reading experiences. It’s not the subject matter—I’ve read about Soviet labor camps before. It’s not the prose—Sepetys didn’t astound me, though her writing was effective. And it wasn’t the characters—Lina and her mother and brother were nice but not anything new.
Maybe it was the combination of it all, the elements that came together and made this book. It’s just…this book gave me a lot to think about. It’s very intricate, and quite a bit more mature than your typical YA novel.
So the story is about Lina, a Lithuanian girl who is deported and taken to Siberia. She first works at a beet farm, and she stays there for about ten months. There she experiences her first love, has all of her childhood assumptions challenged. After than she’s dragged up to the top of the Arctic Circle, where she watches her friends and family slowly die off in the freezing cold. And when it seems like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, the book ends.
But while I was disappointed that the book ended there, I think it was most likely a good choice. Lina was doomed to stay in the labor camps for decades longer, and while the struggle was survival, it was also about strength. And once Lina finds that she can maintain her strength in the situation she’s in, I guess the book had come to its natural conclusion. And by leaving things open-ended, Sepetys kept things realistic, as Lina couldn’t just “get out” of her situation by any means.
Lina’s character wasn’t super original or amazing, but the development of her personality was fantastic. We watch her go from a self-centered, naive 15 year old to a world-weary and resilient young woman. I loved watching that growth, as it was so subtle and delicately done.
And going back to the ending (it’s the best part, seriously), there was an epilogue that takes place in 1995, forty years after the main events in Between Shades of Gray. That epilogue was the final touch to this book—a taste of stark realism but also of hope.
Verdict: This is a hard book to talk about, but it’s a beautiful book to read. Between Shades of Gray defies classification, and I’m conflicted about it. There’s no doubt that I liked it, but I can’t explain to you why, nor can I explain what I didn’t like. I just know that I wanted more. More book, more story, more of everything. This book just is. And it’s definitely a recommended read.