Cover of Four Three Two One by Courtney Stevens. Five teens, two boys and three girls, in front of shattering glass

About the Book

Title: Four Three Two One
Published: 2018

Cover Story: Survivors
Drinking Buddy: Yes
Testosterone Estrogen Level: Elevated
Talky Talk: Authentic
Bonus Factors: Photography, Relationship Violence, Commune
Bromance Status: Solid

Trigger warning: Dating violence

Cover Story: Survivors

Normally, I don’t like faces on covers; it robs us of our chance to form our own mental image of the characters. However, the drawings of the five main players works for me, especially the way they’re reflected in the shattering glass of the bus windows. This is a book with a lot of characters and the cover helped me keep the straight when I was getting to know them. Their faces are intricately detailed. Nice title as well. Very ominous.

The Deal:

Last summer, a kid named Simon boarded a bus in New York City and detonated a suicide jacket. Nineteen people were killed. 

Less than a year later, one of the EMTs who worked the aftermath has created an art installation to honor those who lost their lives, as well as the four teens who survived. He invites them to come to the opening, where he’s started a scholarship fund for them. They all answer the call, each bringing their own demons.

There’s Golden, who lives in a commune and whose actions that day may have inadvertently spurred the bombing. There’s her boyfriend, Chandler, who’s desperate to forget everything about the incident and can’t understand why Golden wants to relive it. There’s Rudy, who invited Golden to ride the bus that day. There’s Caroline, Simon’s girlfriend (and Rudy’s cousin), who absolutely blames herself for the tragedy. Rounding out the cast is Golden’s outgoing friend Becky, who can see the survivors with an objective eye. Together they head for New York, hoping to make sense of the bombing, and why they, of all people, survived.

Drinking Buddy: Yes

Two pints of beer cheersing

Like any good characters, they were flawed. Golden has grown up in a commune (though she attends public school) and has a hard time saying no to anyone. The book opens with Chandler proposing in front on her family (they’re both still in high school) and Golden sort of going along with it to please everyone. Chandler alternates between pushy and sullen, and at times their relationship smacked of an arranged marriage (Golden’s family loves him). Rudy didn’t come through the bombing in one piece and is trying to come to grips with his new physical limitations with forced humor and self-destructive behavior. Caroline, who knew how violent and unstable Simon was, loathes herself (as does a lot of the public). 

But these are people who have been through hell and keep on kicking. And that’s what a novel like this is all about: not forgetting, but learning to cope.

Testosterone Estrogen Level: Elevated

So. Four emotionally damaged teens. Young, good looking kids, all hurt, all desperate for healing, all crammed together in a variety of cars. Yeah.

Golden feels that Chandler doesn’t take her pain seriously. Chandler is desperate to hold on to Golden, the best thing in his life, even if it means ignoring her obviously infatuation with Rudy. Rudy remembers a moment he shared with Golden before the bombing, and feels guilty about wishing it could happen again, especially now that his body is broken. Caroline feels unworthy of love or affection, while Becky thinks she’s a wonderful person (and possibly more than a friend).

Something’s got to give.

Talky Talk: Authentic

The story is in Golden’s point of view, with occasional chapters narrated by Caroline. Each chapter is headed by the amount of money the EMT has raised for the kids’ scholarship fund. 

The voices were very authentic. No one can quite figure out why they of all people should have survived the blast. They’re all caught in a prison of self-hate for living when others died, and anger at having been part of the tragedy in the first place. Caroline’s brief chapters were especially poignant. She knew Simon was insane, but couldn’t escape him (see below). And now people are dead. So why should she go on living?

This book does a great job of showing that sometimes there is no reason for a tragedy. You can sit there and blame yourself as much as you want, but sometimes what is, is. But it’s never easy for the survivors. It just takes time, understanding friends, and a road trip from Kentucky to New York City.

Bonus Factor: Photography

Eric Idle and Terry Jones in Monty Python's Wink Wink, Nudge Nudge skit

Golden is an enthusiastic photographer, and has been recreating old family pictures with her antique Kodak camera. But the camera was destroyed in the blast and she never did get that Ellis Island shot. Can she recreate it on this trip?

A nice nod to the lost art of taking photographs with a film camera.

Bonus Factor: Relationship Violence

Clenched fist pounding into a table

Caroline comes from a wealthy family, as does Simon. Having their kids date and eventually marry would do well for both families’ business interests. The bringing together of two fortunes. What could be better?

Except Simon is violent. I mean, crazy, spooky violent. He hurts Caroline, and hurts her real bad. She can’t go to her parents; such a revelation would ruin their business. And if Simon ever found out she’d been talking about him…

And Simon likes to make bombs. Seriously. Not just the old Anarchist’s Cookbook backyard firecrackers, either. This guy is into fairly heavy ordnance. And if he should ever learn that maybe his girlfriend hasn’t been 100% faithful, at least in his opinion, there’s no telling what might happen.

When Simon goes bye bye, Caroline miraculously survives. But to a lot of the public, she’s just as guilty as Simon. And maybe they have a point. She knew what he was. Why didn’t she do something? Why didn’t she try to warn anyone?

How could she possibly be expected to go on living?

Bonus Factor: Commune

Golden and Chandler live on a commune in rural Kentucky. They have a whole extended family to look out for them. Most of them see nothing wrong with Golden and Chandler getting married right out of high school. What more could they possibly want out of life? Why does Golden insist on rehashing the bad thing that happened to her in New York? Life is good!

Bromance Status: Solid

I enjoyed our road trip together, and I think I may revisit it in the future.

Literary Matchmaking

Bitter End

For another intense look at teen relationship violence, read Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End.

The Porcupine of Truth

Bill Konigsberg’s The Porcupine of Truth deals with another lighthearted road trip concealing a harsh reality.

Crash and Burn

Crash and Burn, by Michael Hassan, shows us another teenage bomber.

FTC full disclosure: I received neither money nor bus tokens for writing this review.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.