Three YA novels, three not-entirely-satisfying reading experiences. Rats Saw God
, is a first novel by Rob Thomas, who went on to create Veronica Mars
. I would like to try some of his later novels, as although this one has flashes of the VM
wit and style many of us know and love, he clearly learned a lot since he wrote this one.
There are two stories here. In the present day, Steve is a stoner senior who's flunking out despite his brilliant SAT scores. A sympathetic counselor offers to let him graduate if he turns in a 100 page manuscript on absolutely anything. Steve starts writing about what happened to him in his sophomore year, the year that his famous astronaut father is still married to his mother, the year he falls in love, the year he's in the school Dada club... and the year his life fell apart. This narrative is intercut with the story of how he pulls himself together in his senior year, as writing about the past gives him insight into the present.
There's a lot of intelligence here, and Thomas writes about teenagers really convincingly. It's a quick read, and often funny-- the bits about the Dada club are hilarious, although I think most of their art is actually surrealist social satire, not Dada. The trouble I have with the book is that the parts in the past are much more compelling than the parts in the present, and a lot of crucial emotional breakthroughs and character relationships are told rather than shown. For instance, late in the book Steve has a revelation about his father, himself, and their relationship-- sorry, I have to spoil this to explain, skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know-- which is that their difficult relationship is because they are more alike than different, although Steve had thought they were opposites. The trouble with this is partly that another character tells this to Steve, and partly that what she says about Steve-- that like his Dad, he's a neat freak and a control freak and so forth-- is not behavior we've seen Steve exhibit. Also, Steve's big trauma is pretty predictable, especially if you saw the VM
episode where the same thing happens.
Not at all a bad read, but I bet Thomas' later books are better.
Isabelle Holland was a writer of YA and Gothic novels who seems to have been most popular in the seventies. I imprinted on her YAs as a kid and her Gothics as a teen, and that's a big part of the reason why I snatch them up if I see them used. The Gothics have mostly aged better than YAs, many of which-- like the ones below-- have become sadly dated.
Most of Holland's YA novels are about a girl who is fat, used to be fat, or has parents who think she's fat, and who loves animals. Holland is very good at delineating the emotional states of angsty teenagers, and her adult characters tend to be more three-dimensional than is common in YA novels. This, however, is sometimes a problem when she starts siding with the adults over the teenagers. I'm sorry, but in a YA novel I am probably going to sympathize with the teen narrator no matter what. This is especially problematic in her problem novels, which tend to be more one-note than her general YA novels, and is a major issue in The Search
was written in 1991, which probably makes it one of her last novels, and it still
feels dated. Seventeen-year-old Claudia goes to her teacher's house; he gets her drunk, has sex with her while she's in a blackout, and gets her pregnant. She gives up the baby for adoption, to an agency that will never ever let her know who has her baby or what happened to him. But afterward, she worries about her baby: what if he didn't go to a good home? What if he's being abused? She embarks on a search.
This is readable, like all Holland's books, but ultimately meh. She is way more sympathetic to the father of the baby, and at Claudia's expense, than I would be. Points for a sympathetic priest and a touching ending, though.
, teenage Pud is told to never ever ever hitchhike. She hitchhikes. Bad stuff happens. There is an interesting idea here, which is that Pud is first picked up by a man whose daughter ran away, because Pud reminds him of his daughter and he thinks that by getting insight into Pud, he can figure out what happened to his daughter and why she left. If this had been the whole novel, and had been developed at more length, it would have been a better novel. But hitchhikers must pay for their stupid deeds, so Pud flees that guy and promptly gets kidnapped and held for ransom.
It is symptomatic of something that drove me nuts all through the book, which is that Pud is always excoriated at length for everything she does wrong, but not praised for what she does right, that after she escapes she tries to see the bright side by saying, "Hey, it was pretty cool that I sawed through the ropes and broke through a weak place in the shed and escaped, huh?" and is answered by a scolding about how stupid she was to have gotten in the truck in the first place.
The dog that she rescues early on doesn't die, though, and she does get to keep him, so props to Holland for not punishing Pud by killing her dog.