Friday, October 08, 2010

Thank God That's Over

Shelf grabs--stuff I wander by at the library and grab, or wander by in the bookstore and write down in order to later go to the library to grab--are always hit or miss, of course.  But after reading The Rules of Survival, I found myself back in the Nancy Werlin section of YA. 

Black Mirror

I picked Black Mirror based mostly on the blurb, though I did like the cover.  Take a moment to look at the cover here, because it's relevant.  What does it lead you to expect?  Well, first of all, I think the wintery landscape and the title Black Mirror clearly has me thinking that someone would drown in a pond.  Right? 

It's no spoiler to tell you that there's nary a pond in the book.  Maybe if I hadn't spend so long waiting for one I would not have been as disappointed with the book as it was.  Instead, the black mirror of the title has a cloth hanging over it, because the main character (pictured on the cover) is sitting shiva for her brother.  It takes place at an exclusive New England prep school.  Nobody drowns.

The fact that the main character is Jewish does not actually conflict with the cover of the book--her name is Frances Rosenthal, but her mother was Japanese.  She's never fit in anywhere, too short and Asian for her overbearing bubbe, too curvy and frizzy-haired to be seen as Japanese, to awkward and unsociable for anyone.  Her brother is the all-American one, the one who throws himself into their new school and its exclusive service club.

Let me skip all of the small things that might have bothered me about the book, because to be honest there was just as much good stuff on the small scale as bad.  Yeah, if I heard them call Unity Service a "charitable organization" one more time I was going to start hurling donated cans (seriously, do teenagers in a service club call it a charitable organization), but the descriptions of the things Frances is drawn to--her sculpture project, her art teacher's cottage--are appealing and pleasing.  So it's not that this was a badly written book overall.

It's just that Frances is in a story that's not about her.  I suppose I was reading about her internal coming of age, but when there's a mystery and a suicide and drug dealers and rich people with sketchy motives and danger and violence, it comes as kind of a letdown that Frances never does anything or stops anything or solves anything or saves anything.  She does figure something out, I'll give her that--but on her way to report it to the authorities, she finds out that it's already been reported and it's all under control,

All the drama that the book builds up to takes place in a flashback in the last couple of chapters, where the people who were really involved in the action tell Frances their stories.  Frances, whose big accomplishment was to realize that something might be going on, finds out about most of the danger and intrigue later on.

I don't think Werlin is failing to accomplish her goals, though.  I think the story she wanted to tell is about a misfit who has never felt anything but completely alone in the world realizing that she can respect and admire herself, and that that's the foundation she needs to live a life that isn't as oppressive as she feared.  Which is all great.  But even the "Frances learns not to be miserable" story is kind of choppy, in that of the five or six human connections she sort of starts to make in the book, only one of them amounts to anything at all. 

I won't say it was an awful book.  But it wasn't terribly entertaining, and the whole thing felt as awkward and clunky as Frances herself seems to feel.  I didn't really enjoy reading it, and I can't say I recommend it.  I think the audience it might work for would be teenagers who feel just like Frances--and at 15, a lot of us felt that way.  But at that age, the light at the end of Frances' tunnel wouldn't have been enough for me.

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