Watch over me by Nina LaCour

Title: Watch Over Me

Author: Nina LaCour

Genre: Contemporary, Paranormal, YA

Year: 2020

Had we been telling the truth, he would have said, The place where I’m sending you – it looks beautiful, but it’s haunted.
Okay, I would have said.

Mila has been in foster care for the last few years, since the day her stepfather died in a fire and her mother abandoned her. Eighteen years old and alone, she accepts a job as tutor in an isolated farm in North Carolina, hoping to finally find a real home. The owners have a history of adopting their foster children, after all, so there’s a chance they might make space for her as well.

What Mila doesn’t know is that at night the farm is alive with ghosts, and as painful memories start to resurface, she starts to question whether there’s a reason for the ethereal figures playing and dancing in the fields, and whether this might really be the place for her.

A closer look

The book starts pretty strong, introducing Mila’s character when she already knows that her time with the family that fostered her is at the end. She can read the signs: her eighteenth birthday is approaching, the couple is preparing for a new baby, but no one has asked her to stay. They will not adopt her, even though she did her best to be good with them. That’s why she accept the job she is offered: to tutor kids in an isolated farm, between the fog and the ocean waves down below.

The first impression of the farm is quietly weird. She has her own very little cottage, as do the other two tutors living there; everyone is extremely welcoming and nice to her, but at the same time it feels like they might be too nice to be real. Mila feels welcome but also an outsider, and as she grows to know and love them all, she strains to understand what she needs to do to be really a part of this big family.

Lee understands her; nine-year-old and the newest addition to the family, he too still feels a bit like an outsider. He is also deadly afraid of the one he refers to as “his ghost”, to the point where he hides in a cupboard under the stairs so that he doesn’t have to watch it as it makes mean faces at him.

As they bond over their desire to be part of the family, Mila also comes to understand that it’s not just the ghost Lee is afraid of; something else is haunting him, something that happened in his past. She recognises the signs and scars of a difficult childhood, because she’s had one herself. Determined to help him overcome his fears, she starts sharing some her own experiences with him, so that he might feel like he can talk to her when he needs to. Even though he tries to follow her example, Lee’s fear keeps growing and he starts to close in on himself.

It’s clear from the beginning that something has happened in Mila’s past. It is only hinted at in her conscious interactions, but after little things start happening at the farm – a bunch of flowers on her doorstep, the ghost of a dancing girl that feels like it’s following her – she begins to fear that something might be going on.
She starts having dreams – nightmares – about her past, and so we slowly get to know what really happened to her when she was a child. Her mother grew farther and farther away from her in an attempt to appease a manipulating partner, while twelve-year-old Mila watched it all unfold feeling powerless.

Mila is interesting as a character: she’s a quiet kind of girl, reflective, and with a strong desire to please the people around her. More than once during the novel she tells herself that she’s a good person, as if she doesn’t really believe it and is trying to convince herself. I love the way this reflects what happened when she was a child, and how her past is slowly disclosed through her dreams/memories.

The other characters are fleshed out just enough to feel like people you don’t know very well. Lee is probably the one we get to know better, since he’s Mila’s charge, and it’s very sweet to see how much she cares for him, even if the way she tries to help might not be the most effective. It’s also incredibly wholesome to see how the other two tutors take Mila under their wings and comfort her when she’s sad or afraid. The owners of the farm are just the perfect mix of caring and strict parents. The rest of the kids are more or less one with the background: most of them don’t get more than a couple of lines of dialogue, but the oldest ones – three teenagers – manage to show a shadow of personality nonetheless, which is quite a feat given the circumstances.

The atmosphere throughout the novel is quiet and a little bit eerie. The ghosts who populate the fields are luminous figures, playing, dancing and running around during the night. They are beautiful instead of being scary, and even though there are some spooky moments, the core of the story is Mila’s loneliness and desire to be wanted and loved. I think Nina LaCour has a gift for writing this kind of stories, and her style is just the perfect balance of quiet and poignant.

If I had to make a complaint, is that I didn’t feel so attached to the characters, and I hoped the book would deliver a stronger punch. I know it did for many people though, so that’s – again – something that applies to me personally. I can’t say any more without getting into spoiler territory, so I’ll cut it short: read this book. If you feel lonely, if you want something quiet and beautiful, if you’d like to be on a foggy farm far away from noise and chaos, read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

About the author

Nina LaCour is the author of books like Hold Still (2009), Everything Leads to You (2014), and We Are Okay (2017). Her books usually feature girls grappling with loneliness, grief, and their own sexual identities. I’ve only read We Are Okay by her and I loved it; I honestly can’t wait to put my hands on some of her previous works and possibly find a new favourite.

Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend, Mabel. Even months later, when she is alone in the empty dorm during winter break, she still feels haunted by her past. And now that her friend Mabel is coming to visit, it’s time for her to face the tragedy she tried to run away from.

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