When I was in sixth grade, a class I didn’t much like, I’d sneak a moment of closing my eyes. Looking only at the backs of my eyelids, I’d tell myself that in this blink, I was actually being transported into another world…and just like in the Narnia stories, living an entire, full, exciting adult life…then being transported back into the classroom at the exact moment and age at which I’d left it, with no memory of the events in between.
And then I’d open my eyes.
That’s how I got through childhood. Time travel and memory loss. (And that’s also why I’ve always wanted to be an adult since I was child…because, I was.)
So, Jonathan, my favorite books at that age were Wrinkle in Time and A Dark is Rising (because even then I could tell they had better characterization then the Narnia stories)…and some slightly racy stuff from LeGuin that my dad let me read because it had time travel (the Rocannon’s World books. I think he’d just forgotten about the racy parts). Let me explain why I find When You Reach Me wholly satisfying and distinguished.
Contract: The Reader Needs a Rationale
The rationale is in the characterization. Here is our evidence:
Marcus as a child is the sort of person who examines the world very differently than most people. Case: Punching Sal, to see what it was all about. "To understand life better. To understand people better." Because the day before when his brother was being beaten up, he realized "I just didn’t see myself as …part of what was happening." (p.177 ARC)
Marcus is a mathematical genius.
Marcus as an adult comes from a dystopia: "burn scale" and "the dome" imply environmental disaster.
Marcus is focussed and not easily shaken as a child. As the Laughing Man, he is still very focussed, but clearly very shaken. "The trip is a difficult one."
"All the diamonds on the ring are happening at the same time. It’s like having a drawer full of pictures…All the diamonds exist at once. So if you jump backward, you are in that moment–you are in that picture–and you always were there, you always will be there, even if you don’t know it yet." p. 104 ARC
"Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world…We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way. But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to. Some people learn to lift the veil themselves. Then they don’t have to depend on the wind anymore. / To play in the Winner’s Circle, Mom has to get herself in a certain frame of mind. she says it’s sort of like lifting one little corner of her veil, enough to see more than usual but not so much that she gets totally distracted by life, death, and the beauty of it all. she has to open her mind, she says, so that when the clues start coming, she can see the thread that joins them." p.71-2 ARC.
And that’s your rationale. Stead has wonderfully given it to you backwards in the story (notice the progression of the page numbers). But: given that Marcus is the type of person he is (focussed, genius), and is put in a crisis situation (he lives knowing he must/will learn to travel through time, and does so under dystopic circumstances)….given that before punching Sal he "didn’t see himself as part of what was happening,"….given that moments exist at the same time, but you have to be able to see the whole ring to see how they relate… and given the veil… I believe that Marcus is the sort of person who can and will learn to lift just a corner of his veil, not so much so that he is "totally distracted by life, death, and the beauty of it all…so that when the clues start coming, [he] can see the thread that joins them." He has to do it, and does it, because he already has.
That’s as much rationale as I need, and, I believe, is as good as or more than I ever got in A Wrinkle Time, etc. In fact, it’s so simple that it is watertight, which is a tremendous achievement in a time-slip plot. She hasn’t muddied the story with needless rationale that could wreck the leap of faith.
The Jump-Off-A-Tall-Building-for-this-Book Vibe
I’m not at the point of saying "this must win." No one should be at this point of the year, or discussion. I’m just saying "this is certainly one of the most distinguished books this year," and at this point is top of my list. Here are some notes from my bookmark, none of which have to do with time travel:
Page 1. Fabulous, gripping, intriguing opening page: puts you right in the scene, right in the character, alludes to mystery. Haven’t read such a great opener since…well, since The Graveyard Book.
Chapter Titles. (You didn’t notice? Go back and look at them…think of the game show…)
Miranda’s tone. p. 35-6 ARC "I found it slightly gross to eat pizza with Annemarie because she peeled the cheese off her slice like a scab and ate it, leaving everything else on her plate. But she laughed at my jokes…and she invited me over to her house after school, which more than made up for it." So 11/12.
p.132-33 ARC. "Christmas Vacation" chapter. Lovely.
p.53 ARC, end of chapter in which she’s the runner for the dentist. "So I picked up my book and hiked back up the stairs with the fourth grader. As we started down the hallway to his classroom, he stopped, and I waited while he peeled the sticker off his shirt, folded it, and stuck it in his pocket." End of chapter. Why include that detail of the fourth grader peeling off his sticker (the sticker that showed he’d been to the dentist’s office)?!? It has absolutely nothing to do with anything going on in this book. Except that it shows us the sorts of things that Miranda notices. The attention that she gives the world. The sort of attention required for someone to understand the connection between the Laughing Man and Marcus.
Ok, I guess that last comment did have to do with time travel. But only incidentally. Like the book. Like my life. Like yours?