Review: Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner


How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.

Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.

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Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner tackles some difficult topics: loss, love, grief, suicide, and friendship. Our main character is Otis, a talented swimmer and teenage boy who is still learning how to move on after the death of his little brother. Dara is Otis’s friend – and super intense swim coach – who works him especially in hopes that he can make the Olympics, a dream that is no longer possible for her after losing an arm in a shark attack. Meg is Otis’s best friend from childhood who left abruptly after his brother’s death: just as feelings began to develop between the two of them. Despite the time, distance, and lack of communication, Otis still hasn’t fully gotten over Meg, and her return to town stirs up a variety of emotions for him and his family. Phantom Limbs explores the love Otis and Meg still have for each other, the grief surrounding their relationship, and the lengths that friends will go to for each other.

In case it wasn’t already clear, there is a lot going on in this book. It’s just on the edge of being too much for me; Otis and Meg are already a lot, and bringing Dara’s intensity and complex issues into the mix makes for a lot of different details to keep track of.

That being said, I appreciate that Phantom Limbs tackles some really tough subjects head on. Garner really explores the full spectrum of grief. We see the effects Mason’s death has had on Otis, his parents, and Meg’s family (as they were present during the accident). I thought it was pretty well done, although I would have preferred some kind of explanation earlier in the book. I also liked the exploration of Dara’s complicated life. Poor girl has not had an easy life – after losing her arm in the attack, she has a rough relationship with her parents, and turns to drugs and alcohol to battle her physical, emotional, and mental pains. Dara’s character brings discussion of many heartbreaking and problematic situations into the book, and it’s rewarding to see her relationship with Otis change and grow/improve.

Maybe this is because I’m not a teenage boy, but Otis thinks about sex most of the time and it was just too much for me. The perverted thoughts are everywhere and about all of the female characters – even during really dark situations, Otis is still thinking about Meg or some other girl in far too much detail for my liking. This is something that is personal opinion, but it definitely detracted from my enjoyment of the book. I would have enjoyed it if we had gotten to know Otis a little more as a person and not just a sex-crazed teenage boy.

I do think that Phantom Limbs discusses some really important things well, but it’s definitely not a light and easy read; you’re going to need to give this book your full attention. The sexual overtones definitely won’t be for everyone, and I think it’s something worth being aware of before starting the book.

Rating: 7/10

Paula Garner spends most of her time making food, drinks, and narratives, despite being surrounded by an alarming TBR pile and a very bad cat. Her debut YA novel, Phantom Limbs, comes out from Candlewick in 2016. Paula is represented by Molly Jaffa of Folio Lit, and lives in the Chicago area with her family.

Find Paula:  Website | Twitter

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Lauren is a 20-year-old student living in Northern Virginia. She loves to read YA books and watch movies. Lauren is passionate about many things, but reading has always been a huge part of her life. Ever since she first learned to read, her parents have always had to pry books out of her hands when it’s time for other commitments. Lauren loves everything from The Hunger Games and Divergent, to Percy Jackson, mysteries like State of the Onion, and other YA books, like The Fault in Our Stars, and is always eager to try a new book, author, or series. She also loves music, public health, Harry Potter, and the Washington Capitals. Follow her on Twitter: @LWengrovitz.