LOVE & OTHER CARNIVOROUS PLANTS
A darkly funny debut for fans of Becky Albertalli, Matthew Quick, and Ned Vizzini about a nineteen-year-old girl who’s consumed by love, grief, and the many-tentacled beast of self-destructive behavior.
Freshman year at Harvard was the most anticlimactic year of Danny’s life. She’s failing pre-med and drifting apart from her best friend. One by one, Danny is losing all the underpinnings of her identity. When she finds herself attracted to an older, edgy girl who she met in rehab for an eating disorder, she finally feels like she might be finding a new sense of self.
A darkly funny debut for fans of Becky Albertalli, Matthew Quick, and Ned Vizzini about a nineteen-year-old girl who’s consumed by love, grief, and the many-tentacled beast of self-destructive behavior.
Freshman year at Harvard was the most anticlimactic year of Danny’s life. She’s failing pre-med and drifting apart from her best friend. One by one, Danny is losing all the underpinnings of her identity. When she finds herself attracted to an older, edgy girl who she met in rehab for an eating disorder, she finally feels like she might be finding a new sense of self. But when tragedy strikes, her self-destructive tendencies come back to haunt her as she struggles to discover who that self really is. With a starkly memorable voice that’s at turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Love and Other Carnivorous Plants brilliantly captures the painful turning point between an adolescence that’s slipping away and the overwhelming uncertainty of the future.
- Little, Brown Young Readers
- May 2018
- 352 Pages
“Gonsalves’ debut is a pitch-perfect take on what happens when the future you imagined doesn’t live up to expectations, and every misstep seems to unravel the person you thought you’d become…This genuinely funny novel about some harrowing topics manages to balance humor and pathos perfectly. Readers who connected with J.J. Johnson’s Believarexic or Sam J. Miller’s The Art of Starving will want this book, as well as the many John Green fans who crave intelligent stories that occupy both shadow and light.”—Booklist, starred review
“Fans of Sarah Dessen will appreciate Danny’s relatable and realistic journey. A must-have sharp, powerful, and witty immersion into the complexities of sexual identity and mental health.”—School Library Journal
“Gonsalves juggles multiple serious adolescent challenges with operatic verve—eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual awakening and orientation, mental health, grief—and the resulting bildungsroman proves engaging and enlightening…A feel-good debut sure to interest teens looking to feel better about not feeling so great.”—Kirkus Review
1. The novel opens with a Leonard Cohen lyric, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Why do you think the author chose this quotation?
2. Danny claims, “I’m fantastic at putting things in a brain drawer and losing track of them entirely” (page 2). What does she mean? How can this skill backfire?
3. Although Danny considers Sara her best friend, their relationship has experienced some turmoil. How do their coping mechanisms and communication skills differ?
4. When Danny was at St. John’s, Bugg passed her notes containing the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese,” which you can fi nd on page 104. What do you think of the poem? How does it relate to Danny’s mental state?
5. How did you react when Danny found out Sara had died? Did it change the way you view the first half of the novel and Sara as a character? Why or why not?
6. When Bugg catches Danny binge eating and drinking, she says, “There’s a distinct line between carefree and dangerous” (page 227). Do you agree? Why is this line sometimes difficult to identify or why not?
7. How does Danny eventually make peace with Sara?
8. Why is Danny afraid to tell her parents about her relationship with Bugg even though she knows they are progressive people?
9. Despite her excitement to travel the world with Bugg, why does Danny eventually decide she needs to return home? What is the Undiagnosable Place where she says she must go?
10. The novel ends with Danny’s credo, “Dandelion Theory.” Which of the guidelines stand out to you in particular?
11. Even though Danny has started college, the novel is still considered a young adult book. Why do you think that is? What are some themes that might differentiate a YA novel from an adult novel about a young person? Do you think the distinction is important?
Ten godforsaken weeks after the worst birthday in history according to an informal survey done by HBS (Harvard Bathroom Stalls)
“Well, Danny, at least we know you’ve been eating!” my dad says as I get out of the car.
It isn’t the warm welcome I was anticipating after being banished to a treatment center where my own father didn’t visit me. Not once. Like, really, Dad? As oblivious as you are, can’t you see how wildly insulting that’d be?
“So much for your smock idea, Mom.” I grimace, checking out my reflection in the car door. I had asked her to bring me something “roomy, yet flattering,” but what she brought was missing the second, more important component, so I’m now the proud owner of the same ugly tentlike dress in eight different shades of Mom. And I’m going to have to wear them all summer. Well, I could wear my jean shorts if I don’t button or zip them. But I’d also need to cut slits in the sides so my legs can circulate enough blood not to turn blue. It sounds like a fun DIY project and all, but I’m not the artsy-fartsy type.
“You look beautiful,” my mom says. “We’re so relieved you’re home and safe and feeling better.” Then she starts crying. Crying. While she blows her nose, my dad whips out my Harvard acceptance letter to remind me of “all the things I’ve accomplished,” then tells me that per our deal, he and my mom had a great conference call with my doctors, therapists, and deans, and as long as I keep going to therapy this summer I’ll be able to redo my second semester and return to Harvard in the fall. He points to the letterhead proudly as he says this, and I try not to let on that looking at the letter is making me feel sick. I would never elect to have my parents in on my craziness, but since they pay my tuition, I can’t really be an asshole about it.
“Okay, I love you guys, but I can’t be with you right now.” I take the letter from my dad and fold it up. “We have all summer to hammer out these details, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to charge my cell phone, turn it back on, and make myself available to the world for the first time since April. Unless it’s died of malnourishment.”
My parents shoot me a standard horrified-parent look.
“Oh, come on,” I say cheerfully. “Eating disorder jokes are funny for cell phones because texting is their nourishment. And they’re getting plenty of that.”
They don’t laugh, but it’s fine. I’m my most important audience member.
On my way into the house I trip on one of the plastic geese my dad puts around the garden, lest we forget he’s an ornithology professor. When I put it upright again I think of a poem someone gave me when I first got to treatment, not that I like poetry or that “someone” who gave it to me, but some things have a way of staying with you.
“Wild Geese,” I start, then cut myself off. What happens in treatment stays in treatment. I brush the soil off my hands, but the garden goose stares at me until I’m inside.
Even after two months of neglect my cell phone turns on immediately, no questions asked, which is how all friends should be. I ignore the 132 unread texts from people I probably don’t want to talk to and call the only number I’ve ever memorized besides mine. And Papa John’s, because come on.
After a few rings she yells, “Dandelion!” and I say, “Sara, how the hell are ya?”
“I’m good, kid, how the hell are you?”
We always greet each other in this over-the-top way, like two old gangsters reuniting for the first time since the baptism of their eighth child with their fifth wife. Then she drops her grandiose voice because we can only go on like that for a few seconds and says, “Are you finally home? Where are you? What are you doing? I can’t believe you turned your phone off and finals kept you until June. It’s practically a crime against summer.”
I haven’t exactly told her about my stint in treatment, so I’m like, “I’m a free woman now. Let’s tango.” To be clear, tango isn’t a word I usually use, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had a normal, nonfacilitated conversation.
“Let’s go to the beach,” she says.
“Absolutely not.” I’m standing in the mirror trying to find a stance that makes me look more like how I used to look and less like how I look now. Success rate: zero percent. “I know your metabolism is run by do-gooding fairies, but you’re going to have to take pity on those of us who fell victim to the freshman fifteen and then some.”
“We won’t swim, we’ll walk.”
I sigh and give up. Mirrors will have to be added to the list of things to avoid.
I hold my breath because I can tell she’s gonna bring up something unsavory. “Yeah?”
“We’re fine, right? I know your birthday a couple of months ago was bad, but—”
I make the executive decision to cut her off. “It’s water under the bridge.” I even think I mean it.
“Is that one of those intellectual sayings you learned at Haaaarvaaaard?”
“No, I didn’t learn it at Haaaaarvaaaard.”
Everyone knows the water under the bridge saying, but the last thing I need to do is get Sara back into the mindset that I now think I’m better than everyone because of Haaaarvaaaard.
“I’m just teasing you,” she says. “I’ll pick you up in ten.”
I catch an unfortunate final glimpse of myself in the mirror and tell the voice of body-loving reason to block its ears. “If you don’t see me, look for the girl who looks like she ate the girl once known as Danny.”
Fifty-three minutes later (Sara has her own world clock), a black Range Rover pulls into the driveway blasting country music. I run to her car door and Sara jumps out to give me a hug. She’s taller than I am, so when she wraps her arms around me my ear smooshes into her neck and I eat a little bit of her hair, not because I’m hungry, but just by mistake.
“Ahh! I missed you so much!” she says. Immediately, everything from the birthday fiasco to the last two months of silence dissolves between us. She’s wearing a white summer dress that shows off all the freckles on her shoulders, and I’m smiling because she seems to have gotten more beautiful since the last time I saw her, but probably I just forgot what she looked like. That happens, you know, no matter how beautiful you are, which is why I try not to get so hung up on beauty. It’s the same thing as being ugly: You look at it long enough and it doesn’t look like anything.
“How are you? Your hair is gorgeous! I like the highlights,” she says.
I didn’t get highlights, but whatever. “I’m so happy to see you. You’re so beautiful that if we weren’t already friends we definitely couldn’t be.”
She rolls her eyes, which is her signature move. “Stop, I feel like a mess. I just left Ethan’s house.” She leans in when she says it, and I can tell his name tastes good in her mouth.
“Some guy I met at school. I’ll tell you about him sometime, but right now we have way more important things to catch up on.”
We get in her car and I hope she intends on doing most of the catching up for us. In addition to being emotionally exhausting, my last two months in treatment have been kept entirely secret, even from Sara, who thinks I was undergoing a grueling second semester instead. “How were finals for you?” she asks. “I finished a month ago and I’ve been partying nonstop since. I need to sweat out hella toxins later.”
“Since when do you say ‘hella’? And since when do you party nonstop?” I try to see through her sunglasses if her eyes are actually her eyes. “Doesn’t that mess with your game?”
“Oh, it’s fine,” she says quickly. “Besides, I don’t have training for a couple more weeks. And my tennis season went so well I deserve a break.”
I don’t know what to say, so I look out the window at the strip malls and coffee franchises growing over our town like weeds. I guess that’s what happens when you leave a place alone. It goes to shit without you.
“Did I tell you my coach wants to make me captain next year?” she continues. “I was so shocked, but of course it’d be great for me. I love it there, Danny. The only thing that’s missing is you.”
A heavy silence follows.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to reopen old wounds,” she says quickly, and I wish we would get to the beach already. “I just meant I miss you and it would have been fun to go to college together. But I’m so happy for you, really.”
“It’s fine,” I mumble into the seat belt crossing my chest. “So who is Sir Ethan?”
It’s probably not fair to distract Sara with her love of boys, but it’s also not fair for vultures to eat a deer that isn’t fully dead yet. I guess at the end of the day it’s not about “fair”; it’s about survival.
“Get comfortable. The Ethan story is a long one. Wait, no. Let me start with my sorority. Wait, no, tennis. Yes, tennis, okay, so…”
While Sara describes the most perfect freshman year of college, I take my sandals off and put my feet up on the dashboard. My toenails are chipped black from the last time I painted them, when I thought my choice in polish ought to reflect my soul.
“Enough about me,” Sara says at last. She pulls into the beach too fast and we almost squash a dumb seagull with shitty reflexes. “I can’t believe you turned your phone off for two months. I know you said you were turning it off to focus on school, but were classes really that intense? Or were you still mad about our fight? Maybe we should talk it out.”
“You know how much I love to talk about feelings,” I say sarcastically. I almost wish we had hit the seagull so we’d have something else to talk about, something actually dramatic to distract us from our own dramatics. Just kidding, I mouth to the seagull through the side mirror.
“Same, but I was reading this article that said married couples all end up having the same fight, like, their whole lives,” she says, parking the car. “It might seem like a different fight, but if you boil it down, it’s probably the exact same fight as last week and the week before that. They just keep having that one fight until they die. Or get divorced.”
I peel a large strip of polish off my toenail. “Are you saying the college fight is going to be our fight?”
“It could be. But I don’t want it to be. So I think we should nip it in the butt.”
I could mention that she’s the one who brought up the fight that happened on my birthday this April, when she got the drunkest I’ve ever seen her, then slapped me in the face with a piece of pizza, forcing me to hide out in the bathroom stall like that girl about to have a breakdown. But I’m trying to be a better person, so instead I say: “I said I’m sorry. You said you’re sorry. It’s been over two months. I think we can skip down the yellow brick road anytime now.”
She looks over at me, but I can’t read her expression due to the enormity of her sunglasses. Besides, it’s starting to feel like global warming in the car, so I open the door and breathe in the fresh beach air. I link my arm in hers as we walk from the parking lot to the shore, and she gives it a little squeeze. The thing about not having any siblings is that you have to be strategic about who you get in sibling-fights with. The most crucial factor is that they love you unconditionally. Otherwise you start saying ruthless shit to people and they think the devil lives in your asshole and you end up friendless and alone until your cats stage a coup and murder you. So really Sara and I don’t ever need to apologize to each other. Sometimes it’s good to say sorry, though, just as a formality.
“You still haven’t told me anything about second semester,” Sara prods. I know I should tell her about treatment, but honestly it’s too nice of a day out.
“Classes were intense,” I lie, picking up a flattish stone and feeling its weight in my hand. “Studying all hours of the day and night. At one point I thought about hiring a high schooler to pinch me every forty-five seconds to keep me awake in the library.” I throw the rock at the ocean and pray for a smooth surface skim. “Finals were even more brutal. I had to keep a gallon jug of iced coffee by my bed and I grew, like, grocery bags under my eyes.” Instead of skipping, the stone plunks anticlimactically into the water and I curse my parents for not giving me a single strand of athletic DNA. “Can we talk about something else?” I ask. “This is giving me PTSD.”
“Oh my God, of course,” she says, and it’s the exact tone of Sara’s I missed, the Everything Is Okay tone, regardless of what “everything” is. I breathe a sigh of relief knowing I can say anything to her because even though PTSD isn’t technically a joking matter, she’s about as politically correct as a drunk pirate.
“What about your friend? What’s his name?” She picks up a flat rock too, and hers skips like an Olympian six times before disappearing under the water.
“Stephen.” I undo my ponytail and try not to let on how absurd it is that she can’t remember his name, even though we hung out with him my whole terrible birthday night.
“How is he? Have you two hooked up yet?”
“Ew. It’s Stephen. Combined, we’re about as sexual as a Styrofoam peanut.” But I’m speaking for myself. Of the three times I’ve masturbated in my life, once was an accident. “We literally study together, eat too many snacks, then fall asleep drooling on each other.”
“Oh, please. When I came up to visit I could tell he was totally in love with you.”
But then we’re both silent. Sara’s spring visit to Harvard for my birthday was bad, even before the big blowup. It’s not that I was embarrassed to have my roommates meet Sara, but how could I have known she was going to become a vodka-guzzling sorority doll?
“So how come you didn’t put on the freshman anything but I became the Pillsbury Doughgirl?” I say abruptly.
Sara laughs and we keep walking. “Danny, shut up. You’re not even fat. You’ve gained, what, ten pounds since I saw you?”
“Twenty-five,” I mumble, but I don’t know the number now. Scales were forbidden in treatment due to my vague diagnosis: Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified, plus Bulimia, plus a dollop of General Anxiety Disorder, just for good measure. Still, any mention of numbers makes it feel like my thighs are rubbing together, which makes me seriously regret agreeing to this walk on the beach.
“Twenty-five pounds is nothing. Everyone gains weight in college, and now you have even better curves. But if you want, we’ll play tennis every day this summer and it’ll be gone in a month.” Sara takes off her sandals and walks with a lightness I want to steal from her—not so that she can’t have it, but so that we both can.
“Yeah, but I’m short so you notice it more,” I whine. “Plus, some of it went to my nose or something and now my face is distorted. Do I look like a Teletubby? Be honest.”
“Why don’t you see a nutritionist?” she asks, as if I didn’t think to see every possible specialist when I quickly surpassed the legendary freshman fifteen. I’d hoped to have a thyroid issue, but every blood test came back negative. Apparently I got this way purely of my own volition, which didn’t concern the doctors at all. They called it “normal.” It wasn’t until I developed my own methods to treat the weight gain that the doctors got concerned and ordered me to treatment. Even now they don’t seem to know what’s wrong, and they won’t know until we’ve spent a good many hours together with my feelings. I don’t know how we’re going to find enough of my feelings to fit into the hours of appointments I have scheduled with Leslie, the robot therapist, but I guess I’ll worry about that later.
“Obviously, I’ve seen a nutritionist,” I say, and Sara stops walking to pick up a piece of sea glass. I could tell her that the big accomplishment of the last two months is that I don’t skip off to the little girls’ room after every meal anymore, so we shouldn’t be worried about a few “vanity pounds.” But watching her turn over the piece of glass I decide she doesn’t need all this information, at least not right now. I settle it all by saying, “All the nutritionists want me to do is write down my food and why I’m eating, blah blah blah. It squashes the fun out of everything.”
“Ew, yeah. That sounds so boring.”
I pick up a piece of sea glass to add to the collection Sara’s started in her hand, but it turns out to be regular glass that scrapes my finger when I touch it. “Dammit,” I mumble. Going to treatment would’ve been a lot less unsettling if I knew why it all happened. The therapists say stress and needing an outlet for control and yadda yadda yadda, but it’s unsettling how illogical and arbitrary it is.
“Don’t worry,” Sara says, closing her hand and seeming content with her findings. “I’ll show you the workout my mom’s trainer does with her and you’ll get your confidence back in no time.” I don’t point out that Sara’s mother is at least fifty pounds overweight. “And I’ll set you up with one of Ethan’s friends. I think you’d like John.” She describes John: tall, loves dogs, sort of looks and acts like one.
We sit by the water and she picks up handfuls of sand. “God, I missed this,” she says.
“Me too.” The wind blows my hair into my mouth and it tastes a little salty as I brush it back behind my ear. “I just wish someone warned me how hard college would be. I thought it would be like American Pie—beer pong and sex in every room.”
Sara’s eyes light up and she grabs me by the shoulders. “Wait, have you finally had sex?”
I glare at her. “You say ‘finally’ like I’m forty and not nineteen. I have other priorities, okay?” There’s a cracking sound near us as a shell breaks against a rock. When it opens, the seagull that dropped it eats it mercilessly, one large peck at a time. “To answer your question,no, I have not had The Sex yet. Even getting laid is hard. Classes are one thing, but c’mon. Sex was supposed to be easy.”
“I know it’s hard, Danny,” Sara says, and I just know she doesn’t know at all. “But we’re back in action now. The Plan is right on track.” She clears her throat and I wish the waves would drown out the sound of her trying to act like nothing has changed. “They reunite aftercollege, marry two brothers, lawyers, who love them stupidly. And you know the rest.” She puts her arm around me. “Oh, I meant to tell you, I’m having a party tonight. You’re invited.”
“Thanks for the last-minute invite.” I semipush her into the sand.
“Come on, you didn’t have a phone!” She semipushes me back. “No more sulking. Finals are over, it’s summer, and we have party things to tend to. Okay?” She stands up and offers me her hand, but I almost prefer to lie with my nose in the seaweed, taking in its faint dead-fish smell.
“Okay?” she says again, and in spite of myself, I take her hand and let her help me up. She does have a point—I’ve been waiting for it to be summer since the last time it was summer. And I can’t say no to Sara. I’ve only said no to Sara once, and we’re still working out the politics of that decision.
“You’re leaving again?” my dad asks when I come into the kitchen. They remodeled it while I was at college, and the steel accents give the whole place a hostile feel. “You just got here! We should hang out now that you’re out of…” His face twitches, but I’m very perceptive. “…treatment.”
I open the dark metal refrigerator for a diet any-beverage to avoid looking at him. He doesn’t have to stumble over the T-word every time he says it, as if it’s as hard for him to talk about as it was for me to go through.
“I’m surprised you even knew I was in treatment,” I say, accentuating the word even though I never say it in front of my mom, who insists on saying it all the time. “Considering you never stopped by.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
I open the can of Diet Coke on the cold marble counter and a carpenter ant scuttles by. I wait for my dad to squish it, but he looks at me like I’m supposed to squish it. Obviously, the carpenter ant will die another day, when my mother is in the kitchen.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he finally says, and his voice is so strained I want to punch him. Instead I stomp out of the kitchen and grab his keys.
“I’m taking your car, okay,” I say, because it sounds nicer than “forget it.” I get that it must have sucked to watch me go from valedictorian to Occupy Depression all in the course of ten months, but the least you could do is kill the stupid ant for me, Dad.
Sara’s house is always unlocked because her mother is always there, so I let myself in and up the stairs to Sara’s room. I can smell alcohol in the hallway, and sure enough when I open the door she’s standing over her desk, pouring two generous shots from a handle of vodka.
“I guess we’re not frinking tonight?” I ask. I pull the sleeves of my smock away from the puddle of my armpits and notice how little has changed in Sara’s room: same pink walls and white furniture and gingerbread candle no matter what season it is.
“No, I never frink anymore. I can’t believe you still do.” Her tone reduces me to something even less cool than head lice, which is totally unfair. Frinking, i.e., fake-drinking, is what Sara and I used to do in high school. It’s stupid easy. You hold a red cup and dance aggressively and don’t consume calories or ruin your chances of, like, becoming someone important in the future. I’d planned on frinking tonight, but I guess I can deal with being fat and unsuccessful tomorrow. Besides, I deserve a little fun on my first night out of captivity. “The most important thing I learned in college, well really it was in my sorority, is that it’s way more fun to actually drink.” Sara adjusts her boobs so they sit up higher in her push-up bra and then grabs one of the glasses. “Here, this one is for you.”
“It’s only more fun until tomorrow rolls around,” I correct her, taking the glass from her hand and wondering why it is that Sara got fat boobs and I got fat everything else except boobs. “What should we cheers to?”