Where She Went

Where She Went by Gayle Forman

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This book is the sequel to If I Stay, and I was just as unimpressed with this book as I was with that one. The narrator is Adam, who was the boyfriend of Mia, the girl who was in the coma in the first book. He’s become a rock star, but he and Mia broke up, so he’s really angsty. Most of the book is a kind of mystery about why Mia dumped him, and Adam’s grumpy complaints about his heartbreak and his pitiful rockstar lifestlye. After all that, the explanation isn’t very satisfying, or at least not good enough for so much buildup. The gimmick of the first book, Mia’s floating consciousness during her coma, has to pull too much narrative weight in this explanation.

I picked up the book because I was interested in what a mediocre YA romance would say is the solution to a long distance relationship, and I was unsatisfied with the answer. Mia and Adam break up during their first bout of long distance for reasons that she doesn’t deign to communicate to him at the time. Of course a teenage long distance relationship can’t survive poor communication, much less a freeze out. Duh. Spoiler alert: when Mia and Adam get back together, they don’t even consider touring separately, not even just for a few months. Adam basically decides to give up his insanely successful band to be with her. There’s a lot of stuff about how he doesn’t enjoy music anymore, but then it seems like he gets back into it. This sacrifice seemed so unnecessary. I think it would have been more romantic for a disillusioned rocker to get his groove back after reuniting with a girlfriend, instead of jettisoning his career. After their current tours are over, they could have arranged their future separate concert tours to always play the same cities, or take turns touring and piggybacking, even if they don’t necessarily play music together, which might have been a cloyingly sweet ending.

Another small pet peeve. YA writers sometimes write about teenagers whose lives are much too adult to be believable to me. In this case, before the accident, Mia and Adam had frequent sleepovers and an overnight camping trip while they were in high school. Mia’s parents, it is explained, are super progressive. Maybe I just grew up in a different time (late 90’s-early 2000’s) or my parents were unusually conservative (and Catholic) but this just does not compute for me. It seems to me that writers have a choice either to write teenage characters or to write characters who are leading adult lives, and they can’t have it both ways. They want the characters to be young (close to the age of their readers), but they also want their relationships to have the intimacy and logistical ease of adult relationships. These books are wish fulfillment fantasies, of course, and it makes sense that the teen readers would like to have such permissive parents as well, but I think the books lose something in realism by eliminating all parental oversight. Note: I’m not prudishly saying teenage characters can’t have sex, I’m realistically saying that it can’t be that easy for them to have sex.

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Wonder

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

Wonder is about Augie Pullman, a boy born with multiple medical problems that resulted in many surgeries over the course of his childhood to reconstruct his face. Even after all the surgeries, he still looks startling and unusual enough that other children get scared to see him on the street. All of his medical issues kept him out of school for years, but now he’s ready to enter 5th grade at a normal middle school. Wonder tells the story of his integration into his New York prep school, using multiple first-person narrators. It begins with Augie, then his sister Via, then his friends Summer and Jack, then Via’s boyfriend and frenemy.

Wonder is a children’s book, so it’s written at a low level of complexity that makes it appropriate for children, but slightly boring for me. At times, especially in the Augie sections, there was not enough conflict. Though Augie is far from perfect on the outside, he’s nearly so on the inside, and it gets a little grating. For example, it’s hard to believe he’s still so naive and trusting that he’s surprised when people make comments about his face. He also has the perfect family: his parents are sweet and accomodating and even fun, if overprotective, and his sister is kind and loving, if at times understandably resentful. I was most interested in the sections with the other characters who struggled with their role in Augie’s life: his sister Via and his friend Jack. The edge that creeps into Via’s voice in discussing the way her parents would always put her second in the face of Augie’s overwhelming need, and her bitter but informative discussion of her own genetics, are probably the book’s most powerful moments. The teasing and ostracization Augie deals with in middle school seem fairly mild to me, and of course by the end he’s 100% accepted by everyone. The final moral about kindness is true and sweet and inspiring, but does it really take away all of Augie’s pain? The characters are all fairly privileged: Augie’s school is the kind of place Upper East Side mothers have their eyes on when they put un-concieved children on the wait list at prestigious preschools. That privilege may be one of many factors insulating Augie and his friends from a more frank look at difference and its consequences.

Maybe I’m a cynic, but to me Wonder seemed like a Very Special Episode, a Disney movie version of what it’s like to grow up with a disfiguring genetic condition. I sure hope life is really like this for people like Augie, but I kind of doubt it. Like I said, though, it’s a children’s book, so maybe there are limits to the amount of complexity and conflict we expect children to be able to handle. Or maybe we underestimate them.

Pet Peeves: It’s Too Easy

I feel like this was something we covered in undergrad fiction workshop. If things are too easy for your characters, there is no suspense. If there’s no suspense of any kind, there’s not much reason to keep reading. When everything is hunky-dory all the time, things get boring. Conflict of some kind is necessary in fiction. When the stakes are too low, there’s no point watching the betting. Here are some books I’ve read recently where I’ve encountered this issue:

Elsewhere

Ten Miles Past Normal

The Queen of Broken Hearts

This is a problem I see with some YA books. I’m a little hesitant to criticize YA books for being too simple, because they’re designated YA for a reason. They’re meant to be simple. And that’s ok. There is room in the world for easy, unchallenging reads that just offer a little escape into a fantasy. I don’t wish these books didn’t exist. But they have their place, and they can’t pretend to be something they’re not. Some YA books make the crossover into adult readership successfully, and these ones won’t.

I guess my ho-hum reactions to these books have taught me that I like the stakes plenty high to keep me interested. That doesn’t mean life-or-death cliffhangers at every turn, but it means I need some drama, some disagreement or inner turmoil. I don’t like being able to predict the solution to a character’s problem too easily. A reader shouldn’t be able to solve all of a character’s problems for her on page 10, then have to watch her enact these obvious solutions for the next 300 pages. When characters are too happy, when side characters start pairing up just as decoration, when they’re having cute little parties just to get the cast together and marvel at how pretty everyone is, it’s a sign. These things are happening because the conflict isn’t big enough. If the conflict were taking up more space, there would be no room for sweet little meaningless scenes like that.

There’s a reason today’s criticisms are not as scathing as my previous pet peeve posts. My objection to overly easy, suspenseless plots is aesthetic, not moral. I have moral objections to materialism and fanservice. Aesthetic objections carry less urgency and inspire less passion in me, because bad aesthetics is relatively harmless. If the biggest problem is that a plot is without tension, at least no one is being hurt or taught bad values. They’re just being bored. The writer is shooting himself in the foot, not turning his gun on a whole roomful of readers. I guess every writer has a right to do that, if she really wants, though I’d advise against it.

Pet Peeves: What a Stud!

When a male character has women constantly falling all over him, it bothers me. I can’t blame this one on the fact that the books are YA this time; half of these books are considered adult, or even high literature. Some examples are:

The Valley of Horses

The Morganville Vampires

Why We Broke Up

Halo and Hades

The Kingkiller Chronicles

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Freedom

I don’t know why authors feel compelled to surround male characters with screaming mobs of girls (The Valley of Horses, Feast of Fools). It’s a show of power and influence. It’s a way to show that a character is widely considered to be attractive. Regardless of the reaon for writing these scenes, they always stretch credibility for me. It’s really hard for me to believe that a character is literally getting mobbed by women unless he is actually a rock star or something, and even then it feels silly. I have never seen a woman throw herself at a man in that way, much less more than one of them at a time. I have such a hard time empathizing with the women who act this way, because it seems so irrational. They have to know they don’t have a shot. So why degrade yourself? I also can never see what in the guy is worth such a frenzy. Maybe it’s just because I’ve never met a real movie star, but I have a hard time understanding getting that worked up in public over a guy who, let’s face it, is never going to sleep with you. And even if he were, why feed his ego?

Besides its lack of realism, one other problem with this type of scene is that the women are not differentiated. They are a crowd, and their individuality doesn’t matter. It also makes it seem like all women are attracted to the same qualities in men. I don’t mind if Brian has two girls who like him, Sally and Suzy. As long as they each are given personalities, it is ok to have more than one woman like a man. That is just a standard love triangle plot, and it’s usually not objectionable in and of itself, regardless of the gender it favors. It can even be Sally and Suzy and Molly. Three is probably the limit, though. Much beyond that and their blurring becomes inevitable. When women are a faceless mob, they’re not people. They’re dehumanized and defined only by a common, overwhelming sex drive. They’re interchangeable, like objects, their individual worth erased.

There’s a fine like between the movie star mob and someone who just has an unusually active sexual/romantic life and no shortage of semi-anonymous partners (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Wise Man’s Fear, Why We Broke Up, Freedom). Again, I don’t like the anonymity and lack of individuality of the women. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to learn about a man who is shown having these kinds of relationships. He’s commitment-phobic, for whatever reason? He really likes sex? He has an existential void that he’s trying to fill with women? He’s a man with needs killing time until he can be with the one he really loves? He’s young and sees no need to “tie himself down”? Regardless of the reason a man engages in it, this behavior usually builds tension, so that when the character finally chooses one woman it somehow means more. By elevating his one chosen girl, he denigrates the many he has sampled and found wanting. Usually, the female lead has had much less experience herself, so a sexual double standard is reinforced.

It also bothers me to read a scene where a woman tries really hard to seduce a man, but he’s not interested (Feast of Fools). It makes it feel like life is an audition for the role of sex partner. Like that’s all this woman could offer. Even if she’s a baddie, it’s a harsh portrayal.

I have to go back to the questions I asked in the post on fanservice: Is this thing worth doing? What is the point of emphasizing a male character’s attractiveness? Why emphasize the way women respond to him?

Often the point seems to be to make a female character feel unworthy. The girl who is really in love with this guy watches this scene off to the side and wonders how she could ever be good enough when he could have any or all of these other women, who are of course so much more attractive than she is. This feeling of unworthiness is highly relatable; we’ve all felt it at some point. But I don’t think that this is something worth doing. It elevates the male character at the expense of the female, and creates a relationship where the power is out of balance. There are better ways to create romantic tension and get the audience to relate to a character’s seemingly hopeless love.

Or, the point is to show what a prize this man is and how lucky the chosen girl is when she finally wins him. Even if the woman doesn’t feel unworthy, if she doesn’t witness the scene, for example, the couple is out of balance in the audience’s mind unless similar scenes are created to show how great and desirable the woman is.

When the point is to build tension or develop the relationship with the main female lead, I recognize these as worthy goals, but feel that they could be achieved in other, better ways. A relationship could still be shown to be meaningful without being compared to many short relationships with faceless women.

Pet Peeves: Materialism

I’ve discovered that it bothers me when books focus overmuch on clothes and material possessions, especially designer name brands and other class markers. Part of this is that it doesn’t much pique my interest because clothes aren’t my favorite thing ever. But my reaction goes beyond a lack of interest; I feel disgust that seems philosophically justifiable. Two recently blogged books where I found and objected to materialism were Revelations, part of the Blue Bloods series, and the memoir Bitter Is the New Black.

I think I understand why writers put in specific details of the characters’ clothes, furnishings, and vehicles. This information adds to characterization, and helps the reader to understand the characters’ personalities. I remember reading books like The Babysitters’ Club, where each character had a signature style, and their every outfit was meticulously described, usually in the second chapter. It made sense because the readers were little girls working to figure out their own style, and the babysitters provided a personal style barometer against which to measure and define oneself. However, I don’t think the babysitters ever wore anything you couldn’t get at J.C. Penney, and the more artistic ones even made their own clothes and/or accessories. Even though a few of them came from well-off families, their style was totally attainable. The class issues that I see in more recent books just weren’t there. I even hesitate to call this materialism. These passages were just about enjoying clothes and expressing yourself through them. It helped that Kristy, the leader, had a pretty utilitarian style, and that they almost always wore comfortable, age-appropriate outfits.

The materialism I saw in the Blue Bloods series was of an entirely different breed. Out-of-reach commodities are glorified almost beyond belief in this series. Modeling is presented as a realistic career option. Thinness is shown to be essential to this chic lifestyle, and for these supernatural characters it’s effortless. Though the worldly power of the vampire/angels in this series is important to the plot, I didn’t think this power should have been represented in such superficial ways. I ultimately decided to quit reading the series because my annoyance with its materialism outweighed my enjoyment of the plot and characters.

The materialism in Bitter is the New Black is plot-relevant, and it’s something that the main character mostly grows out of, which is good. However, the privilege and entitlement she displays along the way was so grating that it negated the positive growth for me. Especially in the first half of the memoir, she snarks at people with fewer resources, disparaging their taste for not being able to afford better clothes, jewelry, purses, and perfume. This is unforgivable, and not as funny as the author thinks it is.

For some reason, materialism bothers me less in period novels than in contemporary settings. In The American Heiress, the Bright Young Things series and the Luxe series, there are many detailed descriptions of gorgeous period-appropriate clothes, which add to the atmosphere of the book, as well as to characterization. I’m not really sure why this manifestation of materialism doesn’t bother me much, because the characters and their worldview are equally acquisitive. Maybe things seem less trendy and tacky after 90 years. A superficial difference may also be that there are fewer brand names mentioned; Tiffany’s made an appearance in all of these books, but was just about the only brand, or at least the only one that’s still around and recognizable.

One important contrast seems to be the effect that these different presentations of materialism have on readers, who are usually young girls. Materialism in a period setting adds to a fantasy world that girls know they cannot really live in. As much fun as it might be to imagine sumptuous ball gowns, complete with corset and kid gloves, they know that fashions in real life do not include such styles, except maybe on Halloween. It’s the equivalent of magic wands and unicorns. Period materialism is not aspirational.

But in a contemporary setting, descriptions of expensive clothes, houses, and cars do become aspirational. These items exist in today’s world and are paraded in front of young people in all aspects of the media. These books only add to a larger problem when characters are shopping in designer boutiques where they don’t even put price tags on the couture and paying with daddy’s credit card, and it’s all presented as a wish fulfillment fantasy for readers to enjoy. It’s a novelization of a flashy magazine article that tells you that $200 jeans are such a steal. And that’s when it becomes ridiculous and teaches bad values.

So what’s the solution? Writers can’t ignore the physical realm or the material objects that surround their characters. There are good character- and plot-related reasons to give details of clothing and furniture. But overindulgence in a fascination with fashion poisons literature and its readers. (It also binds a book to a particular short time period, as the styles go out of date so quickly.) What’s the middle ground?

One recent book I read that turned materialism on its head was Partials. It’s a postapocalyptic dystopia, and one activity that the main characters do a lot is scavenge. Kira, the main character, takes pleasure in her amazing wardrobe, and says that everyone she knows has great clothes, because they looted malls and the houses of the dead. This is entirely believable, but also makes a chilling point: you can’t take it with you. The book is a thriller, and the clothes are only the focus for about half a scene.

I observed bits of materialism in Before I Fall. The teenage narrator observes the brands and clothes all around her, and intuits their meaning in the language of teenage style. Clothing choices can be used to characterize, and brand names sprinkled with a sparing hand can add specificity to descriptions. But it’s best if the class issues are made explicit. For example, in this book, the narrator envies her friends’ wealthier parents and compares her tight budget for clothing to theirs, discussing how it’s hard to keep up with them, and how the issue keeps her from enjoying shopping with them. Later, she goes on a shopping spree and gets a makeover, but she has to steal her mother’s credit card to do it, and she only does it because she’s convinced she’s going to die so nothing matters. I think this is the best way that an author writing contemporary YA fiction can deal with the issue of materialism and aspirationalism: present it as a problem that a character is dealing with in a realistic way, rather than as an unrealistic fantasy come to life.

Pet Peeves: Look How Sexy Everyone Is!

I get sick of reading physical descriptions of characters again and again. Authors should describe them once when they are introduced, and trust that readers can remember that description for the rest of the book. I don’t need to be constantly reminded of the color of a character’s eyes. (And while we’re talking about eye color, am I the only one who notices how vastly overrepresented gray and green and even violet eyes are in fiction?) I get particularly peeved when the point of the repeated descriptions is to emphasize the physical attractiveness of the characters.

What kinds of passages am I talking about, specifically? Twilight was a big offender. Stephenie Meyer is incapable of mentioning Edward Cullen without going on about his “velvet voice” or his “messy copper hair,” whatever those descriptions even mean. It seemed like every time the character was mentioned, at least one of his physical traits had to be described, as if readers could possibly forget how sexy he is when sexiness is his most important characteristic. Now, Twilight is a pretty blatant and obvious example, but I get really picky about this stuff. I’m even annoyed by a few superfluous adjectives inserted into a scene of sex or kissing. Not just, “She stroked his bicep” (which is bad enough, right?), but “she stroked his strong, firm bicep.” Those adjectives are only there to emphasize the character’s hotness. All the information and emotion you need to understand the scene was already there before those two words got added in. Attention to language means that every unnecessary word is cut out. This overabundance of sexy adjectives usually just feels like wordiness, or sloppy editing.

Some recent books that bothered me with hotness reminders were the Halo series, the Morganville Vampires series, the Blue Bloods series, the Fallen series–and these are only the major offenders that jump out at me in memory. In Fallen the constant descriptions of Daniel’s hotness only served to make his girlfriend Luce seem desperate and unhealthy. In Blue Bloods, the emphasis on characters’ appearances was just a part of a larger problem with materialism and class snobbery. In the Morganville Vampires series, the purpose seemed to be providing a fantasy for readers, painting appealing mental pictures. The biggest problem about that is that this canned human scenery distracts from the more intriguing plot. Halo and Hades were a weird case because they were told from the point of view of an angel, and she constantly harped on the attractiveness not only of her human boyfriend, but of her fellow angels, who she treated as brother and sister, as well as her female human friends. It was like the author was insisting that when this book is made into a movie (God forbid!) all the actors absolutely must be super hot (as if there were any other kinds of actors anyway). All of these books are considered YA.

The only purpose I can see for these recurring descriptions is that it’s fanservice. The authors seem to be assuming that readers want to be sexually titillated. It’s no different from when Alexander Skarsgard and Joe Manganiello take off their shirts in True Blood. Sure, it’s fun to look at, but is it always necessary for the story? No. In this example, and in much of the fiction I’m discussing, the point of view is female, so men are objectified. But how pissed off would I be if it were ladies in skimpy bikinis held up to be ogled instead of men with ripped abs? Very. So really, there’s no difference. Fanservice is fanservice, whether it’s directed toward a male or female audience.

The problem with fanservice is that it makes a bad assumption about what the audience wants. It assumes that the reason we read or watch shows is to be turned on by the characters. It treats the characters like scenery to be gawked at. It objectifies. That’s reason enough not to like it.

When you think about fanservice, you think about gratuitous sexualized images. So it’s probably kind of weird to think about fanservice in a nonvisual media like a novel. But novels are always painting scenes and drawing pictures in the minds of readers. Novels can be very visual indeed; the only difference between a novel and a painting is that in a novel the reader imagines the picture based on a writer’s cues, instead of just looking at something a painter imagined. What’s more, every word in a novel represents a choice to emphasize or deemphasize something about a character or scene. Adding unnecessary physical description words emphasizes a character’s body and sexuality. Those extra words have the same effect as supersizing Catwoman’s boobs or posing her provocatively, just in a verbal medium instead of a visual one.

Now, I know, these scenes are usually told from the point of view of a character who’s falling in love/lust, and so it’s kind of natural they’re preoccupied with the body that’s turning them on so much. But the bodies are not the most interesting thing about a sex scene for an experienced, discerning reader. (In my imagination, all attractive bodies look pretty much the same anyway, but maybe my imagination is bland or underdeveloped in this area.) What’s interesting in a sex scene are the ways emotion is expressed, power dynamics shift, and the relationship grows or is revealed. Even in erotica, this deeper information is more stimulating than generic descriptions of bodies. Diana Gabaldon, a favorite author and a true master of great sex scenes, would agree.  Superfluous, generic adjectives about hotness only distract from the scene’s potential to do much more important work.

I read recently that Henry James said there are three questions to ask of a book: 1) What is it doing? 2) Is it doing it well? and 3) Is that thing worth doing? (Don’t take that attribution as gospel: I can’t find the quote again to save my life.) I’ve established that what these novels are doing with these repeated sexualized physical descriptions is fanservice, and some of these novels do it very well. They make the readers fall in love with the characters and get turned on by the scenes and descriptions. But the problem is that this is not really worth doing. Sexualizing and fetishizing characters like this doesn’t reach any worthwhile goals. It doesn’t teach readers anything new about relationships and their possibilities. It doesn’t question gender roles or teach healthy body image. One could even make the argument that fanservice is dangerous and bad for readers, especially young ones. Do you think that all of the twelve-year-old girls who read Twilight and fell in love with Edward and/or Jacob are better off for investing so much emotion into a fantasy? Can any human male live up to a masturbatory fiction of supernatural hotness and pitch-perfect angst? Girls joke about how Edward has spoiled them for all guys, but there is an element of truth to it, and that’s sad.

How can writers avoid fanservice and overemphasizing characters’ physical attractiveness? First of all, they can have realistic characters: people in the real world are not always hot. Second, instead of focusing on bodies, they can zero in on emotions and relationships, because these are not always solely determined by physical attraction. Third, they can write a story substantial enough to hold an audience’s interest without resorting to fanservice. Fourth, they can discuss and even emphasize characters’ physical flaws. Perhaps that person’s lover finds his scars, gray hairs, acne, or spare tire endearing. Fifth, they can edit ruthlessly, questioning every descriptive phrase and weighing its worth to the narrative. These steps are totally doable for any narrative, even erotica, and even YA.

Pet Peeves

So I’ve been writing these book reviews for seven months now and I think it’s time to reflect and look for patterns. One of my goals in blogging was to articulate an aesthetic, to figure out what I like and don’t like and why. I can’t achieve that goal just by writing a bunch of reviews: I have to go back and look at what I’ve written and find issues that come up again and again.

So this week I’ve written a set of four posts on a few pet peeves I’ve picked up in the past year or two of reading. These are things that annoy me consistently, so I took some time to think about why. I hope in linking back to previous reviews and pointing out what they have in common I can better understand and put into words why these things are so bothersome. Because in writing these posts I realized that these aren’t just mindless knee-jerk reactions, but they’re based on actual values and principles. When I don’t like something, I usually have a good reason.