The novel follows Olivia Stellatella, a kid who's dealing with way more than anyone should have to deal with at her age. Her mother has left Olivia and her father, which causes a strained relationship between them. Her father's failing Orchestra has left them severely in debt, causing Olivia, her grandmother and the Maestro himself to move into the very old Emerson Concert Hall. It doesn't even have a shower. The horror. To make matters worse, Olivia has school troubles, and you can just imagine how all of these things combined can make for a very bitter kid. She's not very kind to the Maestro even though he is obviously dealing with his own demons, the two friends that she does start to make, she pushes away, and she is kind of a brat. As Mr. Potato Head would say, "That ain't no happy child."
But the thing about Olivia is that you can't help but feel for her situation. At times, she is a frustrating character because you want her to just open up already and give people a chance. But at the same time, I understand why she's a loner and why she despises Emerson Hall and blames it partially for her mother's departure. She's a depressed, lonely kid just trying to survive when she discovers the ghosts haunting Emerson Hall. Through a few uncanny friendships, you can see Olivia's' growth as she slowly allows herself to heal. Or rather, she allows the friendships of the ghosts and her two friends to heal her.
Speaking of Olivia's friends, Henry and Joan were fantastic. The one thing I sometimes miss when hanging out in YAland is the dynamic of friendships, because with YA, there is usually such a strong focus on romantic love. But I loved how Henry saw beyond Olivia's facade and was there for her even when she pushed him away. I loved Joan and how she was all about getting involved with causes. Then there was also Igor, the cat, who Olivia may or may not have talked to in her head, dreamy Richard Ashley (fetch me my fainting couch!) and Olivia's grandmother. These characters were adorable and I was so happy that Olivia had them.
My favorite setting would have to be The Happy Place, a coffee shop run by Mr. and Mrs. Barskey. (My Personal Happy Place generally involves my couch, ice cream and watching Pitch Perfect over and over while thinking of ways to then incorporate Pitch Perfect jokes into every conversation I have. A-ca-believe it! But I digress...) With its bright vibrant colors with equally colorful personalities of the couple that owned the establishment, it provided a much-needed ray of sunshine considering how depressing The Year of Shadows can be. And it definitely had its dark moments when Olivia and Henry started "sharing" with the ghosts and learning about their pasts. Topics such as murder, The Great Depression and war are delicately presented in a way that was not overwhelming, but never lacking in severity. Mr. Worthington's story tore me up inside. WHY, CLAIRE. WHY? ARE MY TEARS TASTY?
Legrand also did a fabulous job with her descriptions, making Emerson Hall easily come to life in my head. But I especially loved the ones with the music:
"It's a strange feeling, when you hear a good piece of music. It starts out kind of shaky, this hot, heavy knot in your chest. At first it's tiny, like a spot of light in a dark room, but then it builds, pouring through you. And the next thing you know, everything from your forehead down to your fingers and toes is on fire. You feel like the hot, heavy knot in your chest is turning into a bubble. It's full of everything good in the world, and if you don't do something--if you don't run or dance or shout to everyone in the world about this music you've just heard--it'll explode." - The Year of Shadows ARC, page 183
And the descriptions went so well with the beautiful illustrations, which were not finished in my ARC copy. Pro Tip: Totally get a paper copy of this instead of reading the ebook if you can. From the chapter headings with Igor to the bordered page numbers, The Year of Shadows is all-around wonderfully crafted. I'm once again reminded why Middle Grade is often so special, because you don't always get these cool extras in YA or even Adult fiction.
Overall, The Year of Shadows, is a fantastic novel with endearing characters, delicious descriptions and a captivating plot, making this one of my favorites of 2013. While aimed for the Middle Grade audience, it holds a complexity that will compel readers of all ages to flip pages late into the night.