Bracing yourself for an impact that never arrives is a strange sensation. When it becomes clear that the anticipated pain is not going to make an appearance, there’s a moment of confusion before the tensed muscles release, before the flinch fades, before the shielding hands come down. A suspended second where the expectation and the reality don’t quite connect, and you have to reassess what’s going on. As I read The Survival Kit, I think I had been unconsciously readying myself for an emotional kick in the solar plexus, only to reach the epilogue without any such violent impact. If anything, as I put the book down, I felt the distinct empty space where I had expected the strong emotional response to be. And I can’t help but think that this does a disservice to the book, and the things I actually did feel about it. Have I confused you yet?In a genre with no shortage of “grief books”, Donna Freitas’ writing and approach to a heavy subject sets The Survival Kit apart. Her approach is both respectful and empathetic, striking a balance between the inherent sadness of her topic and a genuinely uplifting subtext, without coming off either deliberately tear-jerky or TV-movie cheesy. The focus is on Rose’s growth, her progression through grief, and the eventual affirmation of her personal beliefs about life. The story opens after the death of Rose’s mother, with the discovery a survival kit. A signature gift that Rose’s mother has been making for other people over the years, the survival kit is a paper bag filled with small personalised objects and mementos, like tiny tethering devices, keeping hope alive in their recipients. The sections of Rose’s story loosely centre each object in her survival kit. Originally seeing them as specific clues or pieces of a message, Rose slowly comes to find her own interpretation of the gifts, a way to incorporate them in her life and rediscover what she thought she had lost. What was almost immediately apparent to me, and definitely a welcome change to the prevailing trend, was the lack of high school clichés to found in this book. Cheerleaders who are not stereotypes! Football players who are not written as mindless jocks! Diversity! An absence of Mean Girl caricatures. Beautifully rendered friendships. The passing of real, actual time and the gradual burgeoning of romantic feelings. Despite some slightly predictable moments, Rose and Will’s relationship is definitely a highlight of this story, with some genuinely poignant, honest scenes. While there is more than a nod to what I what I can only assume is an average US high school experience, this felt refreshingly down to earth, with meaningful, well-developed relationships and a strong supporting cast of characters. The symbolism of the items in Rose’s survival kit, while appropriate, occasionally felt a little heavy-handed and I have to question a few incidents which didn’t feel strictly realistic. Neither can I say that this book held any huge surprises in terms of the direction the plot took – the dramatic moments are not too difficult to predict. That said, I don’t feel that this outweighs that strong positive themes running through this story. I very much appreciated Freitas’ care in showing Rose as a vulnerable, mourning character, yet also one that didn’t rely on the love interest to “save” her. This story, particularly the latter half, speaks very much to Rose’s self-determination, character growth and belief in her herself. I love the fact that while the story encompasses a range of people and events that have a direct bearing on the plot, it always remains very much about Rose, her decisions, and her passage through experiencing loss. There is a beautiful sentiment underpinning Rose’s narrative that though she has lost her mother physically, she still retains so much of her essence: in her surroundings, her daily life, her family, even within Rose herself. Evidently, I have a lot of very positive things to say about this book, and I think it’s an exceptional read both in terms of its style and content. But to circle back to my original comments, I had expected to feel a deeper emotional connection to the story. I can’t say that my response to it was quite what I anticipated. I’d go so far as to say, for me, there a certain something lacking and I can’t entirely overlook its absence. I don’t mean to say it isn’t moving, because it really is, but I think I had been looking for a heavier, more lingering reaction. However, I’m convinced of Freitas’ ability to write a strong, relevant contemporary story, and will definitely read her work again. I’d also recommend it without hesitation to anyone looking for a quiet, thoughtful read with beautifully developed characters.