Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End could easily be the setting of a dystopian novel in need of determined heroes to reset the status quo. In it, a company called Death-Cast notifies everyone who is going to die on a given day with a phone call between midnight and 3 a.m. From the moment you receive the alert, you’re a Decker, eligible for all kinds of perks and discounts because sometime before the clock strikes midnight again, you will die.
The premise is grim, but it becomes chilling with the realization that people die as a direct result of the alert. Silvera references the circumstances of past deaths throughout the text, such as a serial killer who targeted people registered as Deckers on the Last Friend social networking app. The warning fundamentally changes how people go about their day, so that someone rushing to see a close friend one last time might die on the trip. It is horrifying and should be burned to the ground.
But this is not that kind of book.
They Both Die at the End is a quintessentially hopeful treatise on confronting loss and mortality that explores the web of unexpected connections that tie people together. Silvera writes a story that is fun and heartwarming in turn, punctuated with sharp reminders about how the story ends. There are fake-outs and feints as Silvera crafts hope for both his characters and the reader, topped with a celebration of life that makes the final chapters cruel, but all the more beautiful. Honestly, I sobbed in a way I haven’t since I finished Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Mateo Torrez is eighteen years old and regrets all the time he let his anxiety stop him from living. Rufus Emeterio is seventeen and full of energy, reckless and struggling to build a future in a world that’s kept punching him down. They both receive the call. They both download the Last Friend app, designed to pair up Deckers with someone they can spend their final day with. And they find each other. Rufus guides Mateo into letting go of his anxieties; Mateo offers Rufus understanding and compassion. Over the course of a day, they build a friendship together, and, budding slowly underneath it, a romance.
The text flips between their two perspectives, peppered with chapters from the people with whom their lives knowingly and unknowingly intersect: Mateo’s best friend, Lidia; Tagoe, Malcom, and Aimee, Rufus’ foster siblings who would move the world to give him the best End Day; reporter Delilah Grey, convinced that the call she received was a hoax by her ex; and others. People who received the call and those who didn’t, figuring out what life means and what makes it worthwhile. Silvera arranges the cast masterfully, bringing them together and forcing them apart in a dance of emotion and action revolving around the two leads. While many chapters deal with major relationships and the immediate question of coping with the mortality of loved ones, others show the ripple effects that Rufus and Mateo will never see themselves. With each new perspective, Silvera declares that life is a choice, a beautiful one, found in small actions and life-changing relationships and the decision, day after day, that life is worth it.
Silvera’s greatest strength is his steady development of Rufus and Mateo. Their character arcs are both intensely personal and carefully intertwined, building the arc of their relationship while keeping the two distinct. Their story is not love at first sight; it is a friendship that fumbles. Their attraction grows through doubt and questioning, mutual support and openness. Their friendship exists through extraordinary circumstances, catalyzed by necessity, but it is, without a doubt, friendship, and love grows from it. Silvera also carefully divides emotional and physical intimacy. Often, physical intimacy serves as shorthand for an underdeveloped emotional connection. Rufus and Mateo’s first kiss, even them holding hands, is a triumph of the emotional bond they’ve developed.
Mateo and Rufus are a powerful statement of male love – Rufus is bi, Mateo is gay – published in a country and a world that once more seems to be swinging towards overt hostility against anything not straight and white. The strength of their own bond is further nestled in the positive support of their friends and families. While Silvera references homophobia as a force, and Mateo must address his internalized fears about who he is, the text is pointedly absent of homophobic action.
Silvera’s story is a celebration of found families, life, and love in all its forms. In the real world, we do not get the freedom of a warning to give us license. We must live in spite of our ignorance, and if our living should lead to our deaths, Silvera suggests, at least we will have lived.