Everyone wants to believe they would intervene in a bad situation to help a fellow human in distress—but what happens if you don't? New Paltz author Jennifer Castle's newest YA novel, Together at Midnight, asks this very question. After witnessing a tragedy, two Hudson Valley teenagers choose to extend kindness to others in the wake of their shared grief.
Castle (The Beginning of After, You Look Different in Real Life, What Happens Now) sets her novel in New York City in the days leading up to New Year's Day. The snowy, Christmas light-strewn streets provide a hopeful, magical, and, at times, slightly melancholy atmosphere. Told from alternating first-person perspectives, Kendall and Max are both on the precipice of major life changes. Kendall, who has ADHD, has just returned from an alternative study abroad program in Europe and is unsure whether to return to high school. Meanwhile, Max has decided to defer his admission to Brown University to stay home for his emotionally fragile ex-girlfriend.
After Christmas, both teens find themselves aimless and restless in Manhattan. Max has been saddled with watching his elderly curmudgeon of a grandfather, and Kendall is hiding from her parents and responsibilities at her brother's apartment. Max and Kendall have a history that both would rather forget, but fate has other plans. One night, they run into each other on a street corner and witness an accident.
The next day—racked with guilt about not intervening in the situation—Max and Kendall have a stilted, awkward breakfast. At the cafe, their eavesdropping waitress dares them to perform random acts of kindness. Without haste, they decide on seven acts (one for each bystander who didn't step in) to be performed before New Year's Day. With only one rule (no money can be involved), they embark on a journey to help people without expecting anything in return.
After each random act of kindness—which range from shoveling snow for a family to offering a helping hand to an overwhelmed father—there is a first-person perspective from the people Max and Kendall help. These glimpses are such an unexpected and lovely addition because readers are able to gather a full picture of what it means to help and be helped. Another surprising (though welcome) theme running through the book: What one views as helpful, another may view as intrusive. Some of the people they attempt to help shrug them off or worse, but the reader understands why: Some are grieving, some are trying to gain control over their lives, and some are dealing with invisible illnesses. Kendall's brother tells her about an inspirational poster at his school that reads "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Castle allows the reader a brief look at those battles, which makes the acts (or attempted acts) of kindness all the more powerful.
If the novel's heart is the kindness dare, the rest of the novel is a tapestry of high school drama, minor teenage angst, family issues, crushes, breakups, and loss. As Max and Kendall get closer, they unintentionally—and then intentionally—help each other grow and shed their fears. Big E., Max's CNN-loving, Old School New York, ailing-yet-rowdy grandfather, is a perfect example of the faint sadness that permeates this book. The book shows that sometimes the greatest kindness you can extend someone is to truly see and listen to them.
Together at Midnight ends in a way that will appeal to both romantics and realists. In an attempt to make stranger's lives better (even just for a moment), Max and Kendall find a way to make each other better.