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I've been trying to figure out how to express how I feel about this book for about a month now, and you just said it perfectly. After having some time and rereading it here, the book grew on me a lot, but I know exactly what you mean. A book that could leave me feeling absolutely devastated must be doing something right, and I felt that reading it was a meaningful experience that left a lasting impression, so I can't say that it wasn't a good book or that I disliked it. But as much as I really don't want to be one of those people who demands that everything be entertaining and enjoyable, I'm sorry to say I don't think I can get 100% behind something that ended up hurting as much as this did. I still have mixed feelings about it.
I loved the way the epilogue managed to be somewhat hopeful without breaking from the tone of the rest of the book. That’s hard to do, showing that people can carry on after something so traumatic, that they can have meaningful relationships and lives worth living, without making it look easy and ignoring the lasting impact it would still have. Maybe a very brief epilogue many years in the future is the best way to do that; it lets the readers fill in the details of how much Katniss and Peeta are still suffering, how they’ve learned to cope, and how well they’re able to function now in a way that feels realistic to them.
I can understand why some people might not like the epilogue because “and she lived happily ever after even though she never had any babies” really is frustratingly rare. But I think she’s been setting up for this since the beginning of the first book. Every time Katniss mentioned that she didn’t want children, I got the impression that it was because she didn’t want to bring them into that world, not just because of the Games, but because of all the oppression and poverty, because people couldn’t even speak freely and children dying of starvation wasn’t even unusual there. In Catching Fire, it felt to me like she saw it as an opportunity the Capitol had taken from her, that she had a real sense of loss and anger when Peeta announced their fake pregnancy. I think her having children was a quick and effective way to signal that the world had changed enough for her to even consider it an option.
That was exactly how I felt after I finished the book, just a wrecked shell of a person, and it was what led me to accept Prim's death as necessary. I think if she hadn't died, I would have said "well that was a sad book" and I would have moved on. Prim being killed and what it did to Katniss was what left me devastated, which is probably how a book about a war should make you feel, really.
I'm choosing to believe in the magic island party.
This was the point where I wanted to give up on the book and somehow unread what I had read. Oh Collins, WHY WHY WHY?!
If there was one person I’d have guessed was safe, it would have been Prim. That she was so underdeveloped as a character in the first two books was actually a big part of why this was so awful for me. She was more a symbol than anything. She was everything that was innocent and good and worth fighting for. Even in Mockingjay after she became more of a person, she was still the best reminder of why it might actually all be worth it, how she would have opportunities now that she never would have gotten in District 12. I had no idea how much Prim surviving mattered to me until she died, and then I remember thinking that there was no way this book could end with anything other than pure tragedy. Felt like a stupid thing to think, like I don’t know what I was expecting, a happy ending? But still. After all the shipping and jumping on any small sign that Peeta was getting better, at that point I just didn’t even care anymore.
Also, what Collins does to your expectations:
It occurred to me that most of this seems to happen during the one time of year that victors can least afford to alienate the richest people in the Capitol, and I wonder now if that’s why it’s only the mentors who can get sponsors. I remember thinking in the first book that it was odd Effie couldn’t, but that would be a pretty clever way to force the victors to keep sucking up to these people for the rest of their lives if they want their tributes to have a shot at surviving.