Friday, August 5, 2011

Books involving issues don't have to be Issue Books.

Deb Caletti's Stay and Jennifer Brown's Bitter End both came out this year, and I picked them up at the library and read them almost back to back partially because they were reviewed together in the Times. Now, I have plenty of issues with that review - most notably with the idea that most YA books are designed to Teach A Moral - and don't necessarily agree with its assessment of these particular books, either. I do agree with the reviewer that Stay is far better, but I don't think it's particularly light, and I don't think Bitter End is more realistic.

Let's deal with the one I liked less first - and I should emphasize that I didn't think Bitter End was a BAD book, at all. (And I probably would have liked it better had I not just read Stay.) But it read very much like an Issue Book, to the point that I never really got into it as a novel. And after thinking about it for a week or so, I've concluded that most of my problems with it came down to the fact that it felt like Brown was so dedicated to Getting The Issue Across that the characterization suffered for it, and that ended up making the book worse as a book as well as undermining the Teaching Of Issues. Because when you want readers to buy into a story in which the heroine gets into a relationship with an abuser, the reader needs to be able to see at least a hint of why she finds him attractive. And that just wasn't here. From his first entrance, Cole is clearly A Big Jerk. And shortly thereafter, he becomes A Big Jerk Who Is Also Evil. Everyone in Alex's life can see this (and tries to tell her). The reader can see this. I'm not saying that people don't fall for jerks - we've all done it - but the author needs to give us something to go on so we can understand the attraction.

And Alex herself . . . I never really warmed up to her, and I read mostly for the characters, so this was a big problem. And she was . . . a little boring. At first she was Sad About Her Dead Mother, and then she was Sad About Her Dead Mother and also In Love With This Jerk. She complains about her sisters not being focused enough on the fact that their mother is dead, and because I'm a horrible person that kind of made me wonder if books about the sisters would be more interesting.

But let me emphasize that this wasn't BAD! There were some minor characters I loved, who were perhaps more complex than the main characters, and some aspects of the book seemed really promising, and I wished she'd spent more time on them. The whole question of what happened to the mother and how the family could go on living around that big event was fascinating, and I felt somewhat let down by how quickly it was wrapped up, almost as an afterthought. I did wholeheartedly love Alex's best friend Zack, and would happily read a book about him.

On the other hand, Deb Caletti's Stay is one of those books that I loved so much that I have a hard time being coherent about it. But I think the main difference is that it read like it was a novel, first of all, that happened to involve an abusive relationship as part of a larger thing, rather than a Lesson that was pushed into the form of a novel. I adored the main character, Clara, and her flawed but lovable father, and the seaside town where they went to recover from Clara's trauma. I loved the tone and the writing and the whole atmosphere of the thing. I loved it so much that I immediately requested the rest of Caletti's books from the library.

But what really got me was the extremely realistic description of what it's like to love someone who has mental illness. At one point when Clara's talking about dealing with her boyfriend Christian's moods, she says "You anticipate, and when you do that for a long while, it's hard to shake. You get edgy. Like men back from the war who jump when a car backfires." That's one of those lines that made me stop reading and stare at the book because it was so true. I am in no way claiming to understand Clara's specific situation, but I dated someone who had a mental illness (though very different from Christian's and not related to abuse), and Clara's descriptions of what that's like - both while you're in it and the lingering effects afterwards, which is the part people don't usually talk about - were probably the best I've come across in any novel.* Overall, Christian was a much more nuanced character than Cole from Bitter End, so it was much easier to buy into the fact that Clara had ever liked him in the first place. (Of course, this apparently led to Amazon reviews saying he "wasn't abusive enough." Gaaaah.)

Of course, if that aspect hadn't won me over, the HOT SAILOR BROTHERS would have. Swoon. I love sailor stuff, and hot brothers, and I loved the way these brothers appeared in the role of saviors but wound up being very human at the same time. Finn is definitely one of my new Literary Boyfriends - he's funny and confident and outdoorsy and also caring and perceptive. And his big brother's no slouch, either. Their family as a whole was one of those warm, chaotic fictional families whose house I want to show up at for Sunday dinner.

Another quote from Stay that I loved:
"One of the hardest tasks as a human being is knowing when to keep an open mind. And when not to."
And I think that's another good example of why I preferred this book - that's a Lesson, sure, but it's not a hit-you-over-the-head lesson on one exact topic. It's more general, and it ties into the dating violence plot as well as other situations in the book and plenty of situations in life in general. The point of fiction ISN'T to get a message across, but if it were, such a universal and less-obvious (than "don't stay with the boy who hits you") message is almost certainly more worthwhile - and springs from a more interesting novel.

Summary: Read Stay by Deb Caletti! I loved it! It will make you laugh and cry and think and cheer and want to move to the beach. Bitter End by Jennifer Brown was okay, and reviewers who think the point of YA is to teach morals should just FIND NEW JOBS already.

* This was a long time ago, and there was nothing directed at me and I was never in danger like Clara or anything, so please, no need to call the police or my mother.

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