I have been reading Before I Fall. The protagonist is a mean girl. It turns out I like her. I like the gaps between the way she describes herself— funky, cool, having a good time— and what is probably true. The people who look at her, not in admiration, as she imagines, but disgust. The shiver of disgust she herself feels when her popular, slobbery boyfriend kisses her and leaves saliva all over her chin. The way she ignores all the clues that she is not who she thinks, and clings to the shiny version she prefers. Part of the reason I can forgive her is that she’s dead, which means she has already gotten the worst possible punishment. I don’t need to punish her, too. But also, I have hope—why start with somebody so awful unless change is coming? I keep reading to find out: when will she wake up to the truth about her former life? I learn that it’s not just character that holds my attention, but the promise of transformation. This young woman who, in spite of her flaws, makes poetic observations about the world around her— a watery sun spreading over the sky like spilled milk, the pin pricks of cold rain on the back of her hand. Maybe she can be saved.
I read The Nature of Jade, which felt burdened by too many elements— working with elephants, parents getting a divorce, runaway boy with a baby, anxiety disorder. She stitches the chapters together with epigraphs about animal behavior, making them appear connected, but they never add up to one thing, thematically. Like, Fault in Our Stars: mortality. Right at the center, all the time. How can we live, how can we love, why should we love, knowing our days are numbered?
Yesterday Ellie reminded me that the genius of The Fault in Our Stars is the size of its thematic question, and the grace with which John Green answers it. Thematic question: what’s the point of living if you’re just going to die? Every character in the book grapples with that question in some way, not just the dying girl and the dying boy. The writer they went looking for, shattered by his inability to answer the question. The blind kid’s girlfriend, who left him because she couldn’t stand to think about the question, preferring the illusory comfort of her current health. And of course Anne Frank, fighting for whatever scraps of life were left, believing until the end that her life mattered. That’s what gave the story its power— not boy meets girl, girl loses boy to cancer, but how do we make sense of a world where death will happen?
That seems to be part of why I read: lessons to live by. Help figuring out what it means to be human.
Finished reading We Were Liars in the early hours of the morning. I wake up still devastated, as if somebody important just died, or left me. The book was so good it’s hard to justify feeling mad. Everything that happens was earned, and makes thematic and narrative sense. The structure is perfect: a protagonist who keeps circling a crime until she finds the courage to face it. Her dark secret kept me reading until well after midnight, page after page. But then, the ending. The book’s clever, unbearable end. Left me heartbroken. Forsaken. Where is the hope, I think, despairing. What can we love about being human?
Michael says stories should teach us how to live. They help us make sense of suffering. This story starts with a terrible crime, and by the end all the characters are punished, even the ones we root for. What do we learn? Is the message: people are totally screwed up, not just the bad guys, but also the good guys, and especially the protagonist? She destroyed something beautiful. That’s why she feels so bad— it’s her fault. So now she has to live alone and friendless. The end.
I started digging into Goodreads, reading all the three- and two-star reviews, just to see if anybody felt as bereft as I did. Some readers seemed upset by similar issues: cleverness, lack of warmth, intellectual trickery. One reader raised a question that dogged me: why were they liars? And one guy wrote, “The book should have been called, We Were Idiots, because the crime was so epically self-centered and dumb.” I laughed out loud, somewhat consoled. I might be in the minority, but I am not alone in the human race.
Many of the glowing reviews said, “If you loved Gone Girl.” I thought: “If you loved Gone Girl??? Who could love that life-hating book?” People freak the shit out of me. I really need to put my horse blinders on, beware of mice, and other things that might startle from the side of the road.