Sam and Ilsa, Ilsa and Sam–these two Manhattan twins have grown up opposites in binaries of every description. Where Sam is mellow and reliable, Ilsa is wild and reckless. The humorously heartwarming and uncompromisingly honest Sam and Ilsa’s Last Hurrah condenses this sibling rivalry into one celebration. In their grandmother’s apartment, the twins throw their last annual dinner party with six guests–three invitations sent by each sibling–before adulthood comes knocking.
Co-written by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, this young adult novel is, by all accounts, a departure from the humdrum so despised by its two protagonists. From the get-go, Sam and Ilsa emphasise that their final party will be a “recess from the Humdum!” or the going-through-the-motions ordinariness of their lives–and their guest list is no exception. Parker is the dancing ex-boyfriend Ilsa never got over; KK is the cynical, spoilt upstairs neighbour; Li is the friend who arrives in the same outfit as KK; Frederyk is the attractive basketballing sock puppeteer; Johan is the “subway boy” who caught Sam’s eye; Jason is the one that could’ve been for Sam had it not been for Ilsa.
The unlikely supporting cast and the party hosts navigate a stormy night of awkward encounters with exes and growing tensions through quick–and occasionally, bewildering–dialogue and actions, including the unfortunate events leading up to Sam’s ruined lasagna dish. Though the quirky writing style may take some getting used to, the two co-authors do well to sustain a consistent flow and engaging pace throughout the novel, while also bringing both Sam and Ilsa to life through distinct character voices in first person perspectives.
The alternating chapters, juggled between male and female, are a trademark of Cohen and Levithan’s co-authored books such as Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares and Naomi and Eli’s No Kiss List, bringing to the table an element of honesty. Neither Sam’s nor Ilsa’s respective chapters are completely omniscient, but together, they form a truth–at least, to the reader. While reading the book, you choose a side to stick by–Sam’s, if you usually root for the quiet and sweet goody-two-shoes, or Ilsa’s if you usually root for the rambunctious wild child.
However, by the end, it becomes glaringly apparent that choosing a side was never the point of the story. Just as Sam and Ilsa close out their final party in their grandmother’s Manhattan apartment with new-found revelations, you, too, are privy to the sombre realisation that this sibling rivalry had never been about one twin proving the other inferior. Rather, Sam and Ilsa’s sibling dynamic culminates in the resistance against their preordained paths, engineered from their aforementioned polarities.
Sam had always been expected to attend Julliard or Berklee to pursue music and Ilsa had always been expected to run wild with no solid ambitions. The only commonality between them is their grandmother’s apartment–where, quite fittingly, they discover paths carved from their own hands, and not from what was expected of them. Their sibling rivalry sets the ideal literary foundation upon which such a sentiment could be explored with the alternating character perspectives greatly complementing it.
Sam excellently illustrates the novel’s thesis here:
If you consider [your story] written at eighteen, that means you haven’t been the one writing it.
Quite poignantly, the twins represent two opposites in a binary that eventually become two untethered humans in free space.
All in all, Sam and Ilsa’s Last Hurrah is the perfect entertaining read with a subtle coda for young adults. Even if young adult contemporary novels aren’t exactly up your alley, you might find the honest and lighthearted read a welcome surprise.
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A special thank you to Allen & Unwin for generously providing a review copy!
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