We all have our guilty pleasure corner of the bookshelf. For some, it’s a bodice-ripping romance novel. For others, it’s that hastily written in tie-in novel.* And then, there’s me, the reader whose general interest is the mystery, science-fiction or fantasy section, drawn for some unknown reason to the world of young adult novels.
*Confession: If I love the property on which it’s based, I’ll give them a whirl as well. I’m weak, weak I tell you!
It’s OK, you say. The Hunger Games is a young adult novel and Harry Potter started out that way. If only that was my only weakness. No, it’s not just those types of young adult novels that draw my interest. It’s other ones about teens and their angst. Heaven help me, but every once in a while I just have to read one, two or three of them. Part of the reason is it makes me thankful that those angst filled years are far behind me. Another is that, when done well, a teen angst novel can be just as rewarding, entertaining and interesting as any novel from the adult section of the book store.
The problem is that for every great teen angst book I’ll read (Swim the Fly, most things by Sara Zarr who has a knack for creating authentic if highly flawed characters), there’s a whole lot of other books out there like two I just read–Where It Began and The Catastrophic History of You and Me.
Both novels start out well enough. Where It Began starts out with our first person narrator Gabby coming to in the crumpled remains of a car, not quite sure how she got there and wondering where her boyfriend, Billy is. The novel spends the first hundred or so pages with Gabby in the hospital, recovering from serious injuries and trying to regain her memory of what happened that fateful evening and reconstructing her life up to that point. Seems that Gabby was a largely invisible girl at her private high school until she underwent a makeover between her sophomore and junior year. Suddenly, transformed via style consultants, hair extensions and selections from the enhancing what you’ve got section of Victoria’s Secret, Gabby goes from invisible to visible–at least to one of the school’s most popular boys, Billy. Billy, who is suddenly single after breaking up with his most recent girlfriend, is quickly interested in Gabby and soon the two are dating, much to his mother’s chagrin and her parent’s delight. See, Gabby’s parents are maintaining the lifestyle of the rich and famous while slowly coming apart at the seams. Her father drinks himself daily into a stupor and her mother is, for lack of a better phrase, a social climber who is probably reliving her glory days through Gabby.
The fact that Billy has a past and is on probation is a major red flag early in the novel as is the fact that neither Billy nor any of her new friend are coming to visit her in the hospital. For the first fifty or so pages, I wondered if Ann Redisch Stampler was taking us in the direction of having Billy did in the car crash and Gabby not able to remember that and then forced to deal with the consequences of her actions. Thankfully, the book goes in a less cliched direction, though it quickly takes a couple of turns that make it end up being far more frustrating in the long run.
The same thing is true of Jess Rothenberg’s The Catastrophic History of You and Me. The story starts out with an intriguing enough hook. On paper, Brie seems to have the perfect life–great family, great friends and the perfect boyfriend. Until that night of their big date when he informs he doesn’t love her anymore and her heart literally breaks. Brie finds herself in a limbo area pizza shop with several other kids who haven’t moved on. Her guide to her new existence is Patrick, who has apparently been around the pizza shop for a while, waiting for something. As the novel unfolds, Brie discovers her perceived perfect life isn’t exactly as wonderful as she thought (dad’s having an affair, her boyfriend and best friend may or may not have been cheating on her) . She also figures out that there’s something Patrick is hiding from her as well, though she’s less concerned with that than trying to figure where her life went so wrong and how she can take revenge on the ex-boyfriend and her friends.
As I said, both books start off with an intriguing premise and have a solid hook in the first hundred pages. But it’s once we get past the first third of the novel that each story begins to deliver less and less on the promise of the early pages. And a lot of that lack of delivery can be firmly put at the doorstep of our two, first-person narrators, Gabby and Brie.
While reading both books, I found myself thinking that if I ever have a teenage daughter, I’m just going to lock her up inside the house from the time she’s ten until she’s fifty or so. Or hope that I do a better job of preparing her to deal with the world and boys in particular.
The biggest issue I have with Brie and Gabby is the same one I had with Bella Swan in the saga-that-shall-not-be-named. Simply put they start out as interesting, potentially complex and flawed female characters who are defined as more than just the value put on them by their boyfriends only to descend into a cliche of the girl waiting around for the boy to take an action so she can decide how to react. Bella spends much of that saga pining and begging to become undead and then waiting for Edward or Jacob to take some type of action before she reacts. Gabby spends a lot of the book wondering why Billy can’t or won’t contact her, assuming that it’s because his mother has forbidden him from coming by or that her mother won’t let him near the room when she’s not looking her best. She and Billy talk via IM and meet covertly, but he won’t acknowledge her and as the novel unfolds, we slowly see that Billy’s interest isn’t so much concern for her but self-interest and stringing Gabby along just enough to save his own hide. (Again, she can’t remember anything which Billy and others assume she’s doing to cover for him and not because it’s actually true).
By the mid point of the novel, I was becoming so frustrated by Gabby, who only allows herself to be defined by her love for Billy, that I wanted to reach through the page, shake her and shout, “Wake up!”
And while Brie is less guilty of this than Gabby or Bella, I still can’t help but feel a bit frustrated by her and Catastrophic as well. Of the two books, this is the one I’d recommend, but it’s not a glowing recommendation. It’s one that says look at the great potential of the first two thirds of the book–how Brie is interesting and compelling for those pages and there’s a genuine sense of wonder and mystery as to what’s unfolding. Why did Brie die and is it really possible to die of a broken heart? And are things more than what they seem with the apparently perfect boyfriend who, we find out, is harboring a secret. Turns out that there are things lurking under the surface and had the novel been content to only bring up and address these, it might have been far more satisfying once I’d turned the final page.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In the final third of Brie’s journey, some pretty wonky stops are pulled out, including a dark turn from the play Our Town. In these pages, I can see what Rothenberg is trying to do, but I have to admit the execution falls far short.
Coming to the end of these two guilty pleasure novels, I admit I felt a bit more guilt than I did pleasure in reading them. Both had potential early on, but both far very short of realizing it.