As the story opens in 2017 in Redlands, California, 22-year-old Santiago DeAngelo’s friend Abby Wilson asks him if he’s going to make any New Year’s resolutions. Santiago, a talented musician who’s four years into a five-year architecture degree and plans to apprentice with his successful architect father, tells her he doesn’t need to make any resolutions: “I’m right on track.”
But life has other plans: While driving home with his mother, Ana, their car is struck by an SUV, and after a few days, his grief-stricken father decides to take his severely injured wife off life support. The family—father, son, and sister Lucy—is devastated by the loss, which encourages Santiago to lose himself in the fog of his postoperative pain medication.
With Lucy’s help, he eventually starts to process his grief, but by that time, he’s also struggling with a Vicodin addiction.
He pursues his dream of a music career and starts to find some success; however, he also meets a woman named Kitty Holladay who seems perfectly comfortable feeding his drug habit, which she sees as keeping his music flowing; he thinks that she’s “opened up a portal into a variation of my life where I could be happy,” but his family members think otherwise. The narrative, told in fast-moving chapters, charts Santiago’s rise in the music industry, his unhealthy relationships, and his ongoing drug dependence.
His collaboration with Kitty is energizing; when they come up with a future hit song, she tells him, “A product like this is the miracle of pop music.” However, that energy comes at a very high cost.
Over the course of this novel, DeBellis crafts a story of one man’s rise and fall with remarkable empathy and sharp, often lovely prose.
Overall, Santiago often comes across as a bit of a puzzle, as his keen intelligence doesn’t seem to allow him to see the damage he’s doing to his own life; the moment when he finally says “I can’t live like this anymore” is likely to strike many readers as coming far too late. However, he’s an unquestionably well-realized character, and the author does a particularly sensitive job of depicting the thorny interplay between him and his father; the latter initially blames Santiago for causing Ana’s death, and things don’t get too much better from there.
The book’s most effective plot thread, however, is an interior one: Santiago’s powerful artist’s personality confronting a persistent pill addiction: “I don’t expect you to save me,” he writes to another character while deep in its throes. “I won’t lie and tell you that I’ll never take another pill. But I will say that you’re the first person who ever made me feel like I could quit.” The dramatic, shifting tides of faith that others have in the protagonist bring his difficulties into sharp relief, which makes it easy for readers to root for the troubled artist.
A moving story of pursuing one’s goals through pain and loss.
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