Although mostly I’m complaining, there are a few very small spoilers.
You know how some books leave you with a certain feeling or mood after you finish it or while you’re reading it? The Raven Cycle feels like a road trip with friends. Daughter of Smoke & Bone feels like an aesthetic instagram feed from a stunningly beautiful, European girl. You know what I mean. Being left with a very specific, and, at its core, a good feeling, can bring so much to a book. However, there’s a specific kind of young adult contemporary novel that leaves you with a weird, uncomfortable feeling. Like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s written by an adult, and it seems like their one goal is to make teenagers feel uncomfortable. When you finish reading it, something just feels wrong. You’re not sad, exactly, you’re just not happy, and very uncomfortable, but you can’t put your finger on exactly why that is.
This is one of those books.
I read another book by this author several years ago. I wanted to reread that so that I could talk about one of its relationships in a paper I’m currently researching. That book wasn’t at the library, so I decided to go with this one instead. (This should have been my first warning sign because I had to get it from the library not my own shelf.) I didn’t realize that it’s a sequel or companion novel to another book, and I currently have no plans to read the other book. I can read maybe one or two contemporary novels a year, and I don’t really have the motivation to read the first book. I’m sure that I’m missing out on backstory by not reading the first book. I know that I’m always so obsessed with backstory, so it probably seems out of character for me to not want to get all of the backstory, but I honestly just don’t care. There’s only so much of this I can take, and I have other books I want to read more.
For several years I’ve been wondering why people write books that make teens uncomfortable. I obviously have no proof that this is their goal, but I know several people who agree with me about this, and I know we’re not the only ones. On the other hand, there are people all over the internet, and some people I know, who read The Perks of Being a Wallflower and said that they finally felt like they were not alone. Which is great. It’s nice to read a book and relate very strongly to a character. It’s even better when it makes you feel better about yourself, or when it makes you feel like someone understands you. I can speak from personal experience, but none of the characters I identify with come from creepy contemporaries. In the books I am talking about though it’s not like these are just random characters that people can relate to. The entire plot seems to revolve around horrible things happening to these characters, and, to anyone who can’t relate, it’s just an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience. I tried to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower several times, but I never got into it because I just ended up being too uncomfortable. I don’t know what the author’s goal is in this sort of book. Maybe they’re trying to work something out from their own youth? Maybe they’re trying to shed light on something most people don’t experience? In the end, it’s just hard to read for me maybe because I can’t identify with these characters never having lived these sorts of horrible situations myself.
This could be a post in and of itself, but it’s after midnight and I have more to write so I’m stopping here.
In this book, the author tries to cover a lot of serious topics at the same time. They’re all important things to talk about, but, since there are so many of them shoved into one book, it’s impossible for the author to really flesh any of them out or discuss any of them at length. The author does give some statistics at the end of the book, but they’re exclusively about anorexia. And yes, anorexia is bad, and it kills, but it wasn’t the main plot of the entire book although it does come up. You’d think that she would also give statistics for suicide or rape or something about LGBTQ teenagers, since those were all things that were talked about. Suicide, which is also addressed in this book, is the second leading cause of death for teenagers. That seems pretty serious; however, if you were trying to make characters that teens can relate to, being suicidal is probably more relatable than using steroids because of sports, yet the author devotes as much time to the steroid user as to the suicidal teen. You can’t play favorites with trauma. Perhaps the author relates more to the kid using steroids, but she also seems to really want to talk about teen issues. Steroid use and suicide are not on the same level, and it is unfair to put them there. If you’re going to make it your mission to write a book that discusses these all of these things, then you have to discuss them in a statistically relevant way. You can’t decide that it’s more important to discuss one and just ignore or downplay the others, which may be more statistically significant. You can write about several serious topics at the same time, but it has to be handled well. Giving each character several things they have to work through means that you can’t put enough time into each thing, so, instead of doing a couple things well, there are a lot of things done poorly.
Teenagers do go through things that are serious, and these issues are things that real teens have to deal with, but it almost seems like the author bit off more than she could chew. I think it would have been a much more powerful, impactful book if it had focused on one or two things.
I don’t like that there weren’t really any consequences to Sean’s actions. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but he did all sorts of illegal things, and, aside from getting arrested and then let go soon after, nothing happened to him. He isn’t even sent to jail. At the end of the book, he’s still going to college, and he has a girlfriend who seems to be just as horrible as he is. He does not suffer for his actions. The other characters seem to suffer a lot more than he does, but he’s the only one who did things that are truly horrible, and literally illegal. Maybe it’s realistic that horrible people don’t suffer the way that they should, but he didn’t suffer at all, and I wanted him to.
In addition to that, the idea of this book is teenagers trying to be perfect. Every other character was very obviously trying to be perfect, but it didn’t really seem like that for Sean. Maybe you could argue that his steroid usage was his attempt to be perfect at baseball, but with the other characters, people in their lives were asking them to be perfect in ways that they couldn’t be. With Sean, no one was forcing him to be someone he wasn’t. He chose to take steroids. One thing that’s similar in every other character’s story is how other people are trying to force their view of “perfect” on them, and how it makes them miserable. But Sean is actually forcing his ideas of perfect on Cara, and no one in the book is forcing their ideas of perfect on Sean. His story does not share the same elements that the others do, and it kind of seems like it doesn’t fit.
I really did not like the amount of bisexual erasure in this book. Cara wonders how a girl could fall in love with another girl and not be gay, and seems to come to the conclusion that it’s not possible. A girl could fall in love with another girl and be bisexual or pansexual, but there’s no mention of either of those being a possibility.
Every main character’s parents are horrible. The one side character’s father that you see for a couple pages seemed fine, but he was literally the only good parent in the entire book. Not all parents are good, but there are plenty of parents who aren’t like this. Making every parent in every young adult book horrible will be relatable to some people, but a lot of people will not be able to relate to that. I know that there are a lot of people who have bad relationships with their parents, and they should have characters that they can relate to, but you have to write about the other people, too.
Not much really happened in this book. It’s told in “poetry” (I’m putting it in quotations because I don’t like it. More on why that is later.), so obviously there just aren’t as many words to get the story across in, but it could have been done better than this. If the author just cut out the weird metaphors that literally no teenager would ever use, maybe there could have been an actual storyline. In a book that’s over six hundred pages long, you would expect character arcs, and a developed plot line, even when told in poetry. You don’t get either of those things. Homer did it, but perhaps he sets a high bar.
Speaking of the teenagers using strange metaphors, it seems like the author isn’t familiar with how teenagers speak these days. Teenagers don’t speak mostly in pretentious metaphors. If anything, teenagers speak in meme references and self deprecating jokes. I was in a room full of people in their early ish teens the other day, and it was literally just vine references. No matter what the context of the conversation, they had a vine for it. This is what realistic teenagers talk like. It doesn’t make for good, profound, dramatic poetry, but it’s realistic. I know that putting in literal meme references could make the book seem dated in the future, but there was a specific meme reference in Mortal Danger and it didn’t seem dated.
The poetry in this book didn’t feel like poetry. Just because you write something with short lines of text doesn’t mean it’s poetry. I could put my book reviews in poetry form, but it wouldn’t be poetry. The titles of these poems were more like first lines than they were titles. To be honest, I don’t even know if they were titles. There was a line at the top of almost every page that was in a different, slightly bigger font. I figured that was the title, but if you read the poem without that line, it doesn’t make sense. In addition to that, if you pause at the end of each line, it throws off the entire flow of the poems. I know not everyone writes their poems to be read with a pause at the end of each line, but on this I fall with Yeats, Pound, and Thomas. One should pause at the end of the line to enjoy the lyric verse quality of the poem. Otherwise, why make it a poem? I know that I’m very picky about my poetry, but, even to someone who isn’t as picky as I am, this would be lacking.
One out of five stars.