Read an excerpt from The Opposite of Hallelujah here!
Like my first novel, All Unquiet Things, The Opposite of Hallelujah is a mystery, albeit one of a much more emotional and personal nature. I know what you’re thinking–what could be more emo than Neily in All Unquiet Things? Well, you’ve got me there. But really what I mean is that, while All Unquiet Things is, at its heart, a crime novel, there is no crime in The Opposite of Hallelujah. Instead, the mystery revolves around one family’s attempts to deal with crisis and tragedy and secrets and unsaid things, all told through the eyes of their youngest daughter, Caro, who is sixteen. Caro is a completely normal teenager, and she thinks she’s got a pretty good handle on her immediate future and how she sees the world, but she’s forced to question all that when her sister, Hannah, who is eleven years older and has been gone for a Caro’s entire adolescence, comes back home. The Opposite of Hallelujah is a novel about sisters and science and faith and friends and Rube Goldberg machines and M.C. Escher. And Caro has a super cute Polish boyfriend. I feel like that’s a selling point.
The title of The Opposite of Hallelujah comes from the Jens Lekman song called, you guessed it, “The Opposite of Hallelujah,” off the album Night Falls Over Kortedala. It’s a really good song, you’ll like it. It’s also a ridiculously appropriate song for this book, because it’s (as far as I can tell, having listened to it eighty bazillion times) about someone trying to give his or her sister advice about growing up and to connect with her on an emotional level, all while struggling to communicate his or her own feelings of loneliness. I know that sounds depressing, but the song is actually very catchy and upbeat, I promise! Here are the full lyrics. Listen to it here, and buy it on iTunes if you like it.
The Opposite of Hallelujah is available now in hardcover! Purchase from:
If you’re into e-books, you can also purchase The Opposite of Hallelujah digitally from:
The Opposite of Hallelujah will also be available as an audio book. When I have a link, I will post it!
“I adored this novel’s sharp voice and sweet romance. Just wonderful!” – Courtney Summers, author of This is Not a Test
“Big sister Hannah joined the Sisters of Grace convent when Caro was eight, so it seemed simpler to tell everyone at school that her sister was dead. That was “Caroliar’s” first lie. Eight years later Hannah is home, depressed and anorexic, having left the convent in self-imposed disgrace. This time it is easier for Caro to announce Hannah’s return from the Peace Corps, but as the lies pile up, so does Caro’s own confusion and disgrace. Jarzab packs a lot into this story—questions of faith and forgiveness, science and religion, mental illness, guilt and possible redemption, as well as simple high school drama. But at its heart, this is a story about sisters, and it’s as complex and convoluted as the relationship itself.Caro must reinvent her only-child status, learning to accept her parents’ worried focus on an older sister who was for years essentially non-existent. Hannah, on the other hand, is overwhelmed with guilt over a friend’s death and is resentful and envious of Caro’s normal teenage angst. Couched among the issues are truly likeable people: intelligent teenagers supporting each other through good times and bad; loving, very human parents struggling with how to intervene in the life of a seriously ill adult child, while nurturing their teenage daughter; and a science-nerd priest who is honest enough to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers.” –Booklist, starred review
“A teenage girl comes to terms with her sister’s secret past and her own spirituality in this sophomore title by the author of All Unquiet Things (2010).
Eight years ago, 16-year-old Caro’s older sister Hannah left home to join a convent, and Caro hasn’t had much of a relationship with her or God since. “[After] Hannah left, God stayed up in the attic, like the toys and old clothes I’d outgrown that my mother couldn’t bring herself to part with.” But now, Hannah is coming home after telling the Sisters of Grace that she is renouncing her vows, and Caro couldn’t be more angry and confused. She lies to her friends and new boyfriend about Hannah’s prolonged absence and fights with her parents constantly. It is only after she understands the tragic reason why Hannah is so sad and withdrawn that she begins to open up to the idea of making a new connection with her sister. Though the author takes many, many pages to reveal Hannah’s secret, it is time well-spent, providing nuanced characterizations of not only conflicted Caro, but of her troubled parents and her kindly, philosophical priest, Father Bob. It’s a rare teen novel that both tackles religion and creates fully realized adult characters, and Jarzab handles it all gracefully.
A layered meditation on family and belief that will ring true for faith-questing teens.” – Kirkus
“The Opposite of Hallelujah treatment of religion, belief, and religious people is almost perfect. Hannah’s reasons for joining, and leaving, are treated with respect and sympathy; the complexity of religious life is shown. Just as wonderful as the sensitivity with which The Opposite of Hallelujah treats the subject matter is the language…funny and insightful.” – Liz Burns, writing on SLJ.com [full review]
“The Opposite of Hallelujah is Anna Jarzab’s sophomore novel, and it’s a memorable one…Months after reading this, I’m still thinking about Caro and Hannah. Although The Opposite of Hallelujah clocks in at over 450 pages, it is an absorbing read — Jarzab has a handle on her story and on her characters, and she anchors them both with great references and motifs throughout…Rarely do I think I’d like more of a book, especially a book already running long, but I would have read another 100 or so pages of this story to get even more out of the faith/grief experiences of both girls. In many ways, this book reminded me of Sara Zarr, especially Once Was Lost, and I think there’s a lot here fans of Zarr’s books will enjoy. I’d be comfortable handing this to younger YA readers, as well as more mature ones. Jarzab gives readers on both ends of the spectrum a lot to chew on.” – Stacked Books [full review]
“I loved this book. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to give a relgious book a try but is afraid of a preachy message. But even if you aren’t interested in the religious aspect, I recommend The Opposite of Hallelujah, since it’s a great sister story and realistic coming-of-age book. With subtle but evocative prose and a main character who’s so real, The Opposite of Hallelujah is dark but ultimately satisfying.” – Paperback Treasures [full review]
“This is a story that I know that I will find myself re-reading and bullying people to read. Its one of my favorite books for the year and I really can’t recommend it highly enjoy.” – Ticket to Anywhere [full review]
“This book is a rare beast—a YA story about faith, honesty, and family that manages to be thought-provoking rather than preachy… I can’t tell you how delightful it was to read a book that features such a thoughtful heroine, and—while it does feature a lovely romantic subplot—allows her the space to wrestle with more interesting questions than who to go to prom with, or which (generally undead) suitor to choose. Caro’s family isn’t “fixed” by the end of The Opposite of Hallelujah, but her growth over the course of the novel left me feeling like there were few problems too complicated for this intelligent and open-minded young woman to resolve.” – Wordcandy [full review]
“I was completely blown away by The Opposite of Hallelujah. It made me cry and laugh in equal measure. Not only was it a truly spectacular stand-alone read, but it also left a lasting impression on me that will surely not fade away with time.” – Blook Girl [full review]
“I’ve been very anxious for a new book from Anna Jarzab ever since I closed All Unquiet Things. I really loved that book and I haven’t read a mystery that captivated me as much since then. The Opposite of Hallelujah is very different than Anna Jarzab’s first book. Honestly, I was just a tiny bit worried that it might end up being a Religious Book, but I’m happy to say that it did not…If you like books about sisters and unique, but realistic relationships, you should definitely pick up The Opposite of Hallelujah.” – Pure Imagination [full review]
“The Opposite of Hallelujah is a touching story filled to the brim with emotions with a sweet yet rocky at times relationship and a strong narrator that I connected with.” – Blkosiner’s Book Blog [full review]
“I have not come across many YA novels that tackle the issue of religion and faith and Anna Jarzab does so with grace. The story is as much about loss, grief, and family as it is about faith, religion, and god. There are so many things that I liked about this story…Teens will be able to relate to any number of issues addressed in this novel. The religious aspect is not heavy-handed, preachy, or off-putting. Teens looking for books about faith will welcome this novel. Teens who enjoy books featuring family conflict and drama will also enjoy this book.” – YA? Why Not? [full review]
” This story was not what I was expecting but absolutely loved it. A really great story about families, sisters and coming to terms with the past. A fantastic book, I would highly recommend.” – Debra’s Book Cafe [full review]
Frequently Asked Questions:
What inspired you to write THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH?
I’ve been playing with the idea of writing a book about a teenage girl whose sister is a nun since I read Karen Armstrong’s truly wonderful memoir of readjusting to “real” life post-convent, The Spiral Staircase, in 2004. Armstrong went into the convent (not a cloistered order like the Sisters of Grace–an order which, by the way, I made up, but is based on the Poor Clares–but she was a nun before Vatican II, when even active orders were incredibly strict) when she was seventeen and she had a younger sister who was quite bewildered by the whole thing, and Armstrong writes about her sister’s feelings of betrayal in her book. I thought there could be a really interesting story there. I feel obligated to point out, though, that even though Armstrong’s story was the kernel that inspiredHallelujah, neither Caro nor Hannah are meant to depict real people. Still, much of my understanding of how Hannah suffers is informed by The Spiral Staircase and Armstrong’s previous memoir of her time in the convent, Through the Narrow Gate.
I returned to this idea in 2009 when my sister, who is seven and a half years younger than me, made an off-handed comment about how she and I “grew up in different houses”–that even though we have the same parents and, in actuality, grew up in the same houses, her experience was so much different because she was the youngest, and my brother and I were away at college through her adolescence, and my parents’ approach to parenting had changed in the years since I was a teenager. I thought it was an interesting way of looking at it, and the two ideas converged into this story (which is why Hannah is so much older than Caro; I wanted to take the age separation between my sister and I and expand it even more dramatically, so that Caro doesn’t even really have memories of her sister, since Hannah left when she was so young).
Did you do a lot of research about nuns in the process of writing THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH?
I read a lot of articles and books about nuns, because even though Hannah’s experiences in the convent are never depicted and this book is really about her returning to the outside world rather than what happened inside, I wanted to realistically depict what she might be feeling, and how she’s come to this point of suffering. I’d like to take this opportunity to say that it isn’t being a nun that has brought Hannah to her knees, emotionally and physically and psychologically. When Hannah went into the convent she was already extremely unwell, having sublimated all these feelings of grief and powerlessness and then coated them in this zealous religiosity; it wasn’t Hannah’s faith (or lack thereof, or whatever you think she’s been feeling all these years) that made her miserable, it was the fact that she was running away from her pain and trying to hide it and almost wring it out of herself by putting herself through this very rigorous lifestyle. I have no doubt that, if she wasn’t consumed by all of her pain and guilt from the past, she would’ve made a terrific nun.
Caro is a difficult protagonist to love. Did you intend her to be so unlikeable? What was your inspiration in creating her character?
Without fail, every reader review I come across of this book contains some mention of how unlikeable Caro is–if not throughout, then at least at the beginning. (This is, by the way, mostly true of Neily in All Unquiet Things as well.) And I’m not interested in arguing against that viewpoint–I wouldn’t even if I disagreed with it (which I don’t), because people are entitled to their opinion. I have a few answers to this question, though. I actually think Caro is, though selfish and difficult, an extremely likeable character. She’s so funny! And incredibly down to earth, and though she has some particularly undignified moments of self-absorption, I think she’s such a realistic teenager. Perhaps I think this because I also think that Caro is a pretty realistic portrait of me as a teenager, and it’s possible that I was a bit hard on her (vis a vis how other characters see her and judge her) because like most people I’m my own worst critic. But I would like to state for the record that I think Caro is an incredibly empathetic, open-minded, loving person, but she’s also stubborn and afraid of change and insecure about her place in the world, and different circumstances bring out different traits, but they’re all in there, and they are all eventually expressed in her behavior. This was absolutely something I did on purpose, because I think contradictory characters are the most interesting. If Caro wasn’t a little prickly in the beginning, would her epiphanies toward the end of the book be as satisfying? I really don’t think so.
Why M.C. Escher?
The role played in the book by the art of M.C. Escher was originally supposed to be played by the Kurt Vonnegut novel Slaughterhouse Five and its infamous refrain, “So it goes.” I was (and am) rather taken with the idea of some aspects of our lives seeming to amount to a cosmic shrugging of the shoulders, this idea that things happen and what are you going to do about it? I’d intended that to be a recurring theme in the novel, because Caro, like a child, asks “Why?” a lot. It’s part of her character, this relentless pursuit of answers–it’s why she’s so intrigued by science and comforted by math–and she would naturally apply it to the world of emotion and philosophy, but the answers would be far less satisfactory. However, as the story progressed, that became less of a position I was willing to take on the subject–the question was less “Why?” and more “What does it mean?” So “so it goes” became less relevant, and as you might have noticed it never gets mentioned once. The art of M.C. Escher, however, became very relevant as I continued to write the novel.
We had several Escher prints in the house growing up, so they were part of the visual backdrop of my childhood, though I didn’t appreciate them at the time for what they were, nor did I give them a ton of thought, only recognizing that they were intriguingly weird. They originally came into the story mostly because I poached a lot of details from my childhood and inserted them in this book and that was one of them, but the more I thought about it, the more important it became. Escher’s work was extremely useful to me in that it lends itself very well to metaphor, especially about perspective, because a lot of what Father Bob tries to teach Caro about life is about how we see the world and how that’s actually something we can control. And how just because something doesn’t make logical sense doesn’t mean it’s not real or beautiful or worth taking very seriously (like love, or maybe religion, and most definitely, like, every human being in the world).
Why Rube Goldberg machines?
This book really is full of a lot of strange stuff, huh? I like the idea of Rube Goldberg machines because they’re incredibly complex machines built to accomplish incredibly mundane tasks, which makes them a really great metaphor, specifically for Caro’s lies about Hannah. But they’re also a really great metaphor for intricate causality, as Hannah points out–how one thing affects another thing which affects another thing, and so on. One of my favorite moments in the novel is when Pawel, right before letting Caro in his room (where he is keeping a bunch of Rube Goldberg machines, because building them is a hobby of his), says, “Just to be clear–they’re not toys.” The resonance of that line! Of course they’re not toys–how what we do affects other people and causes other events matters. Also, they fill a very convenient role as something that will mean something to Pawel that Caro can conceivably make with her own two hands. Building Bubba is a symbolic gesture for Caro–she does it to show Pawel how much he means to her, how she’s been paying attention, and just to see him smile–and I think it’s also important that her father helps her build it: no man is an island.
Why single-bubble sonoluminescence?
Well, there’s a really great opportunity for the symbolism of creating light in a story that’s at least partially about religion. Also, I like that it shows how relentlessly ambitious and self-challenging Caro is, to the point of silliness.
Are you religious/do you believe in God?
I was raised Catholic and yes, I do consider myself both religious and a believer in God. However, my beliefs are much closer to where Caro ends up by the last page of Hallelujah. I try not to be too rigid in my understanding of faith, even though I am technically a practicing Catholic.
How much of THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH was drawn from your real life?
When it comes to the nun stuff, precisely zero. I’ve mentioned before that Caro is based on how I remember myself as a teenager, and her parents resemble my parents in some ways. (Some reviews have called them overbearing, but actually, I just think they’re good, involved–though, obviously, flawed–parents? No?) When Caro’s dad tells her that the only thing he’s ever really known for sure how to do was love his kids, that’s a line I stole right from my own dad. As is, “It’s not a threat, it’s a promise,” but I gather other people in history have said that.
I would like to take a second here to say that one of the parts of the book I’m extremely proud of is Caro’s relationship(s) with Reb and Erin. One of the things I tried to play with in the story is the way advice works, and Caro is often torn between the way Reb sees things and the way Erin sees things–they often give her contradictory advice, and Caro has to sift through that to figure out what she thinks (and they’re not the only people who give her advice; Father Bob obviously does a lot of that, and so do Caro’s parents and even Pawel). There’s also this strange current of competition between Reb and Erin that is never resolved, but you do get the sense that they both love Caro very much. A lot of their friendship is based on my observations about my own friend groups over the years. I’m particularly fond of Reb; I think I could write a whole book about her, I just haven’t found the right story.
Also–I feel like it would be dishonest not to mention this–what happened to Sabra actually happened to a girl I went to school with as a child but did not know. I don’t want to say much more than that because I absolutely do not want anyone assuming that the way the incident unfolds and is commented upon in THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH is in any way reflective of my experience of/thoughts about the real-life incident, because (as I’ve previously stated) I was in no way involved, and I don’t want anyone thinking I callously appropriated or am in some way taking advantage of other people’s tragedy. As often happens with things that occur in your community when you’re young, that incident made a big impression on me, as did the sudden death of a friend of mine in high school, and I wanted to explore that, because at the time I was writing this book I thoughta lot about grief and how it affects us. For the record.
Talk a little bit about Father Bob. Is he based on a priest you knew? What is significant about him being a scientist priest?
RE: the fact that he’s a scientist, I wanted Father Bob to be someone Caro could realistically relate to. The things she learns about God and faith and the universe and all that would never have sunk in if Father Bob was an overbearing zealot who believes there is only one way of seeing the world. The fact that he’s a scientist props the door open for them to have other conversations, because it makes it possible for Caro to take him seriously. Also, I believe, like Father Bob does (and Einstein does), that science and religion can complement each other in many significant ways. I’ve never known a priest exactly like Father Bob (he is named after a former pastor of my family church, though), but he’s sort of an amalgam of the Jesuit priests I knew at Santa Clara University, where I went to college. It kind of annoys me that I didn’t realize that his name was Bob (short for Robert) and the parish he works at is called St. Robert’s (named after my mom’s childhood church) until after I turned the book in, but whatever.
Fun fact: In my first real draft of Hallelujah (which I’ve never showed anyone), the role Father Bob plays now was played by an honest to God angel, Joan of Arcadia style. When I decided I wanted to submit the novel for publication, I removed the angel (his name was Gabe) and replaced him with someone a little more down to earth (if you’ll pardon the pun).
What is the point of the Sabra back story?
Well, Hannah’s reaction to what happened to Sabra is the thing that has most shaped her as a human being so far (apart from her years in the convent, about which the reader gets very little in the novel). I wanted Hannah to have had something very tragic happen to her that she has buried and won’t talk about, and I did not want it to involve sexual abuse (I feel like that’s expected in a story about nuns and priests and Catholicism and it is, like, so not the point of this novel). I wanted it to be something that she could logically blame herself for, but not reasonably, because I share Caro’s opinion that Hannah is not to blame for Sabra’s death, and that Byrne is wrong to even half-heartedly imply that she might possibly be sort of if you look at it a certain way.
But the most important thing about the Sabra storyline and particularly about how it affects Hannah is that for the majority of the year I was writing this book (2010) I was grieving the death of my beloved grandmother and that did not make me a very pleasant person to be around. I find stories that fetishize grief–stories that take someone who is recently bereaved and show how their experience moving through their grief makes them a better, more loveable person–relentlessly unrealistic and also kind of irresponsible, because in my experience, grief is a very destructive emotion. As Father Bob points out, it’s a selfish emotion, because it’s all about you. He says that in the context of how Hannah’s grief and guilt over Sabra’s death makes the selflessness inherent to cloistered life in the convent impossible, but I think it’s universally applicable. This is not to say that grief is unnatural, because it’s absolutely natural and expected, and you really do have to experience it the way you experience it, but grief made me something of a monster for a good year and I wanted to show how destructive it can be to a person, and to their relationships with others.
Why don’t we get to read Byrne’s letter to Hannah?
First of all, I think Byrne’s letter to Hannah would read a lot like Byrne’s letter to Caro, except it would be to Hannah. That’s just repetitive, and it’s Caro’s story, after all. I also like the idea that it’s something only Hannah and Caro share, and that it’s none of our business. But mostly I think putting Byrne’s letter in the novel would put too much pressure on him to say the exact right thing to miraculously turn this ship around and cure Hannah’s depression (which it can’t really do). The way it functions in the story and in Hannah’s life is as a sort of release and catalyst for recovery, not because of what Byrne says, exactly, but because of the fact that he wrote it at all. In that sense, it doesn’t really matter what the actual text of the letter is.
Fun fact: In an earlier draft of this story, Byrne actually came to see Hannah and they became…friends? It was clear in that draft that Byrne was hoping for more down the road, that he had a romantic interest in her that might eventually blossom into a real relationship. But my friend, the writer Alex Bracken, told me (in a very nice way) that that was too convenient and easy and wish-fulfill-y (can you blame me? I just wanted Hannah to have a little romance, so sue me, girlfriend’s been through a lot), and I had to admit she was right. However, I hold out hope for those two, but since it’s no longer in the book, it’s up to all of us to imagine what happens with them.
Is the little matryoshka doll in THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH a call back to ALL UNQUIET THINGS?
Yup. Caro finds a bunch of Hannah’s old boxes in the garage and one of them contains “a Russian nesting doll the size of my thumb.” In ALL UNQUIET THINGS, Carly hides a key inside a Russian nesting doll, which means she would’ve had to remove the smallest doll to make space for the key. It’s obviously not the same doll, as the books are in no way related, but it is a little Easter egg for an incredibly perceptive reader who has read both of my books and remembered tiny little details (i.e. me).
For the record, the “tiny blue origami wishing star” she finds in the same box is a call forward to TANDEM, my October 2013 book. If my foresight strikes you at being at all impressive, trust me, it isn’t; the nature of publishing and writing is such that I was already very far along in the writing of TANDEM while I was doing my final pass edits on THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH and I knew the origami star was going to be important in TANDEM, so I threw it in there, mostly for my own smug benefit. I’m not above it.
Caro is an unusual name–why did you choose it?
People ask me this a lot–Caro is a nickname for Carolina, which is her full name. That’s explicitly stated in the novel, and it’s in her screen name (SweetCarolina–that is an inside joke to my friends, who really love Neil Diamond). Fun fact: For many years, the Caro character was named Grace. That just felt too heavy-handed to me in the end.
And also, to clear something up: Hannah isn’t named after myself. I chose that name because it is a palindrome, and in a very early version of this novel there was much talk of palindromes. This was back when the book was called DO GEESE SEE GOD? Which is also a palindrome. By the time I changed the title and, like, the entire rest of the novel, Hannah was just her name and I felt no inclination to change it.
Did THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH ever have another title?
As stated above, for a long time it was called DO GEESE SEE GOD? Then, when I decided to rewrite it, I briefly called it AND SO IT GOES (see: previous FAQ about M.C. Escher/Slaughterhouse Five). After that it was pretty much just THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH, with one exception: There was a point in the summer of 2011 when my editor brought up the possibility that the title was too religious-sounding and that might turn off potential readers (which it probably has). So we briefly considered changing it, but nothing quite worked. Some rejected titles below:
SIGNS AND WONDERS (roundly rejected)
IMPOSSIBLE OBJECTS (this is probably my favorite)
WE SHINE WITH BRIGHTNESS (comes from the T.S. Eliot poem “Ash Wednesday”, which I liked for its thematic resonance)
MY LIFE IN PERPETUAL MOTION/LIFE IN PERPETUAL MOTION
THE BEAUTY OF THE IMPOSSIBLE WORLD (this comes directly from the book)
In going through my emails with my agent and editor about this just now, I see that I also suggested THE LIAR’S PARADOX/THE LIAR PARADOX/LIAR’S PARADOX. Well, anyway, after bandying about titles for weeks, my editor and I were on the phone and I said, “Why don’t we just stick with THE OPPOSITE OF HALLELUJAH?” And she was like, “Sounds good.”
Who wins the science fair?
I don’t know. To be honest, I never thought about it until someone asked me. All that mattered to me was that Caro didn’t care if she won or not. She and Pawel could very well have won, or at least placed. For my money, I’m betting on the kid with the terrarium–bonus points are often rewarded by the God of Fiction for thematic resonance. But I guess it’s up to the reader, both to care or not care whether or not they have an answer, and to decide what they think.