Book review: 'What We Saw at Night' by Jacquelyn Mitchard

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They sleep during the day, avoiding their greatest enemy: sunlight. When the sun sets and darkness falls, they hit the town. The nighttime world belongs to them. They are Children of Darkness.

No, this isn't another young adult novel featuring pointy toothed, blood-sucking teen vampires. Jacquelyn Mitchard's novel "What We Saw at Night" (Soho Teen, $17.99, ages 14-18) is about a group of teenagers who suffer from the real world genetic disorder Xeroderma Pigmentosum.

XP is a fatal allergy to sunlight. Allie Kim, along with her best friends Rob and Juliet, live in a parallel universe compared to "daytimers," the name they've given to people who don't suffer from XP.

Allie wakes up when most people are getting home from school or work. She eats dinner as her breakfast and does her school work from home in the wee hours. And she's in bed by sunrise.

Allie, Rob and Juliet can't go to the mall. They can't try out for the track team or take a walk in a sunlit park. But that doesn't mean they can't find exciting things to do from dusk till dawn.

In fact, their nighttime activities are usually more exciting than anything teens do in the daytime. That's mostly thanks to Juliet -- the free spirit among the trio.

The empty, nighttime version of their sleepy, nowhere town of Iron Harbor is the group's private playground. While the daytimers sleep, dreaming of sunrise, Allie and her friends live their lives at night, free to go where they want under the cover of darkness.

Of course, suffering from XP doesn't mean that Allie and her friends don't go through the same growing pains and angst that other teens their age experience. Allie has had a crush on Rob for as long as she can remember. But Allie can also see that Rob only has eyes for Juliet. Unfortunately for Rob, Juliet clearly couldn't be less interested in him. This creates a typical love triangle among very atypical teens.

Then everything changes when Juliet introduces Allie and Rob to Parkour, also known as Freerunning, a stunt-sport that features running and climbing off forest cliffs and tall buildings. It's during one of these nighttime Parkour stunts that Allie stumbles upon what looks like a murder. Or at least that's what she tries to convince Rob and Juliet, who didn't see anything.

Did she imagine it? XP can sometimes lead to hallucinations in its more degenerative stages. Could Allie be losing her mind?

As Allie delves deeper into what she saw, she uncovers what might be a larger conspiracy, involving a member of the Tabor family. That's the family of doctors that founded and operate the Tabor Clinic.

The clinic is the leading research and treatment center for patients with XP. It is the reason Allie, Rob and Juliet's families all moved to Iron Harbor and it's their best hope for finding a cure to the disease.

Not only that, Allie begins to suspect that one of her best friends might be involved in the crime. This revelation could lead to Allie, Juliet and Rob to being in serious danger.

"What We Saw at Night" is an engaging blend of real-world drama involving a life-and-death illness and a whodunit thriller. Imagine John Green's recent "The Fault in Our Stars" in a mashup with a Nancy Drew mystery. Plus some roof jumping and wall scaling.

The character of Allie is well drawn. She's a teenage girl with depth and intelligence, struggling to find her place in a world into which she doesn't fit.

Like much of Ms. Mitchard's other work, the book explores themes of mortality, abuse, friendship and family all while spinning an entertaining yarn. There are mentions of drinking and drug use, sexual situations and death. As Allie learns more about the man she suspects of murder, the story becomes darker and more disturbing.

However, if you're looking for a book with a beginning, middle and end, this is where the novel falls short. Like many teen titles of late, this is only the first part of an ongoing story involving Allie and the crime she may or may not have witnessed.

The book even includes a preview of the first two chapters of the next volume, "What We Lost in the Dark." What the book lacks in finality it makes up for in fast-paced storytelling, an engaging mystery and well-defined characters.


J.J. Lendl is a library assistant, teen services, at the Carnegie Library branch in Beechview.


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