The Trip Is a Difficult One
September 19, 2009 By 6 Comments
I have WHEN YOU REACH ME and A SEASON OF GIFTS rated as the best fiction I’ve read so far, but I think it’s been a relatively weak year for fiction. The nonfiction, on the other hand, has been stellar–and I like about a half dozen titles. I’m also still thinking about some poetry, picture books, and graphic novels. Although WHEN YOU REACH ME felt like an Honor book to me more than a Medal book, I’m not prepared just yet to argue for anything as most distinguished.
While all of the characters and their various relationships are nicely done, I still see Marcus as little more than a thinly veiled plot device rather than a flesh-and-blood character. He’s a physics genius rather than a mathematical one, and I never bought his second grade analysis of A WRINKLE IN TIME. Second graders have a hard enough time reading a clock, and here’s one that could win the Nobel Prize and serve on the Newbery committee? Please. I don’t even think Albert Einstein could have done it at such a young age; the brain is not sufficiently developed to deal with such abstract concepts.
We’ve spent lots of time talking about the science fiction aspect of the novel, but I’ve also argued that I didn’t find it satisfying as a mystery. I guessed that Marcus was the Laughing Man before the big reveal. I’m sure some people guessed it before I did and some guessed it afterward and some never guessed it at all. Such is the nature of mysteries.
But even when you correctly foresee a plot twist coming, a gifted mystery writer will make you want to read anyway. You know the outcome, but you need to see how it unfolds. I’m a plot-driven reader so I wanted to know about the idea of time travel and the backstory of Marcus, and when I didn’t get it (or when I didn’t get as much of it as I wanted) I felt a little cheated.
Now Monica (she of the new book deal) is a more character-driven reader and she was satisfied with what I found frustrating, while being completely enthralled with the relationships between all of the characters which I found pleasant, but hardly Medal worthy. But what if the shoe was on the other foot? What if, for example, the genuine source of estrangement between Sal and Miranda was neither revealed nor resolved. What if the giver of the rose remained anonymous? What if we never saw whether Mom won the game show, but instead had to make our best guess? What if the contemporary fiction side of the story featured the sketchy parts? Would Monica be similarly forgiving? I’m not so sure.
Admittedly, much of the stuff I’ve discussed in these posts falls somewhere between objective critical analysis and subjective personal reaction and might not be very convincing in this forum–or around the Newbery table, for that matter. I do realize that and find my stance on these issues softening slightly, but ironically more because of a point that I made than anything somebody else has written. To wit, it seems a little bit churlish of me to allow Elizabeth Knox to be ever so brilliant in DREAMHUNTER and DREAMQUAKE because of the demands she makes on the reader without making the same allowance for Stead. Of course, I’m still annoyed that there seems to be either a double standard where fantasy is concerned–or just outright ignorance–but we cannot really take that frustration out on WHEN YOU REACH ME in the Newbery process.