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The Disenchantments

disenchantments The DisenchantmentsThe Disenchantments, Nina LaCour
Dutton Books, February 2012
Reviewed from ARC

What does it say about a book when as a reader, I’m far more engaged by its themes and the questions it explores than the story or main characters? Or does it say more about me? This is what I’m grappling with as I complete my second read of Morris Award Finalist Nina LaCour’s sophomore effort, The Disenchantments.

Clearly, with three stars under its belt — from Kirkus, PW, and SLJ — this is a well-regarded title, and with good reason. Kirkus called it “hauntingly beautiful”, while SLJ’s reviewer pronounced it “contemplative but spectacular”, but while I’ll certainly buy beautiful and contemplative, I haven’t been haunted by this book at all. In fact, after reading it this winter, I had to undertake a complete re-read to remind myself of some major plot points.

But I’m getting ahead of myself with dyspeptic reviewer’s grumpiness: let me lavish praise where it is very much due: in the areas of theme and style.

My notes are littered with question marks about the themes and questions LaCour’s characters grapple with:

  • What kind of life do I want to have?
  • What is the nature of friendship and love (platonic, romantic, familial)?
  • What makes a family A Family? How do you build one, nurture it, and sustain it over many years?
  • What are our obligations to others? Can we ever live a life free of obligations? If so, is that really a life worth having?
  • Does anything in life truly happen at random, or is everything — the people we meet, the way we choose to see them — the result of the choices we make: Turn right or left? Go to college or to Europe? Head to Seattle in search of a special tattoo or stay in Portland with my friends for one last day? Tell the truth or lie? Assume or ask?
  • How do we see people? How do others see us? How is seeing different from looking at?
  • What’s the best venue for learning? School? The Road? Abroad? Tattoo parlors, record stores, strange men’s basements, little apartments with red shag rugs and the collected recordings of The Supremes?
  • What is the value of our dreams? Should they always be fulfilled, or are some dreams meant to be deferred?

See? I could go all day! These are some wonderfully meaty questions, and it’s a testament to LaCour’s skill as a writer that she’s able to weave so many themes together so smoothly. This novel truly is a tapestry, and a lush one in many ways.

Narrator Colby, poleaxed by his lifelong best friend and longtime intense crush-objected Bev’s announcement that no, actually, she’s not going with him on a long-planned tour Europe, she’s going to RISD, then has to endure a week in a VW Microbus with Bev and their friends Meg and Alexa, who round out the lineup of their titular Riot Grrrl-influenced girl group, who make up in attitude and looks what they lack in musicianship.

Colby is sweet, and nobody’s fool. Well, nobody’s except for Bev’s. And he is very much her fool. I came close to throwing the book across the room a couple of times, because come ON, already, man! That girl is a total relationship Jedi: “I don’t ever want to be accountable to anyone for anything again,” she says. “I will never make another pact and I will never get married and I will never let anyone think that I am theirs forever.” (p 203) But still she expects Colby to be her roadie, to take care of her. Ugh. And what is so special about her? She’s a stylish girl, a talented sculptor (indeed, her finely observed miniature wood carvings of people show how much better she is at seeing people than almost anyone around her), and…mysteriously sad. Mysterious sadness does not a character make, but I am once AGAIN getting ahead of myself. Back to Colby!

Colby is keenly observant (which goes to another theme of the book, one which I liked very much, especially since the main characters are all graduates of a San Francisco arts high school: observation. What’s the nature of seeing things and people? Who sees, who is seen, what’s the difference between being seen and being looked at?), and it’s hard for me to believe that a boy this insightful –

“If this were a year or two ago, Bev and I would have put ourselves on speaker phone and talked to the three of them gathered together in one room, and I wouldn’t have to avert my eyes when I caught myself watching her, and this conversation would not be in any way lonely.” (p 96)

– would still not see, for years and years, that Bev was holding onto some serious pain. It turns out that Bev is not mysterious, she’s heartbroken over her mother’s infidelity to her dad, and processing it in a completely and believably juvenile way. (Aside: Can we talk about that sentence for a minute? As a lifelong fan of teetering on the knife edge of unwieldy run-on sentences, I can see how skilled LaCour is with them. She doesn’t do it too often — just often enough that I felt like I was inside Colby’s head, right there with him on this heartbreaking, uplifting adventure. There’s some wonderful stuff here, and I found myself thinking, more than once, that this book would make an even better movie.)

And that’s kind of where the book falls apart for me. We’re meant to think that Bev in particular and his naivete regarding romantic relationships in general are Colby’s blind spots — really, his ONLY blind spots. He’s smart, passionate, devoted, patient, kind and gutsy, but can’t get it together to see past the fog of his infatuation? I know the reviews rave about how realistic Colby’s “I wish I knew how to quit you” feelings for Bev are, but I don’t know. Honestly, it made me wonder if, as a long-married lady in her late 30s, I’m too old to know or remember whether or not it’s realistic, and it made me wonder if perhaps it’s the kind of realism we, as adults, want to think of as realistic, rather than being actual realism.

Overall, I think this is a very solid book, and a thought-provoking one (11oo-some words later, that’s obvious). I don’t think it’s winner material, but in my opinion, it could have a shot at silver if the RealCommittee is more convinced of the relationship realism and the quality of the main characters (we can get into this in more detail in comments, but briefly: besides Colby, the other MCs are not super-memorable. The secondary and tertiary characters — genial basement-dweller Walt, single mom Sophie, graffiti artist Rene — had way more spark) than I am. Ok, I’m spent! What did y’all think? To the comments!

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Comments

  1. TeenReader says:

    I understand most of your problems with the book, especially concerning how blind Colby was to Bev. But… I really, really like this book and want it to get recognition. The mood throughout the book is just perfect, it captures what it’s like to be young and directionless and trying to figure life out. And I disagree with you about the main characters. I thought they were all interesting and well-drawn, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. The plot wasn’t the most distinguished part of the book, but I still cared and wanted to know what would happen. I am interested to see how other people respond to it, but this, along with The Fault in Our Stars, is a favorite among my limited reading.

  2. Mark Flowers says:

    My goodreads synopsis of the books flaws: sentimentalism run rampant; not one but three Manic Pixie Dream Girls; too many coincidences, etc.

    And can we talk about the title for a second? If just the name of the band had been The Disenchantments, I would have thought, OK, that’s kind of clever. But naming the whole book after it was like “OK, I fricking get it already!”

    I was deeply unimpressed by this book.

  3. Cecilia says:

    My opinion falls in between you two. I liked the book, but didn’t find the writing distinguished enough for a Printz. The characters didn’t stick with me very long and I also thought the plot was thin. I did like the fact that the band was terrible–I feel like too often fictional bands are automatically awesome.

  4. Joy Millam says:

    I’m with you Sophie– it was good but not great. I enjoyed the read and contemplating the question of what makes a family. But, it certainly didn’t haunt me as some titles have (long after I’ve cast them aside for the next book on the pile), nor was it so engrossing that I couldn’t stop reading. Characterization was good, themes were well done, voice was good, and the plot was definitely quite thin. Compared to the other titles that were bestowed with awards last year ie: When Things Come Back, Why We Broke Up, and The Scorpio Races this one is a pale shade of grey amidst a rainbow pallet of wonderful, memorable, literary works. Nice assessment Sophie!

  5. Beth says:

    Mark said : “not one but three Manic Pixie Dream Girls” Yeah, this is where it fell apart for me. I could never figure out why he was so enthralled with the way I could with Miles and Alaska, or even the attraction between say the characters in books like The Big Crunch or Wintertown. The other two girls were pretty interchangeable and not memorable at all.

  6. Laura Pearle says:

    My problem was with Colby: I didn’t feel that this was a male voice (it felt a little gender neutral) and I definitely didn’t sense what should have been anger and confusion over Bev’s decision. It just felt like a Sarah Dessen-esque formula book, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not a Printz.

  7. Sophie Brookover says:

    @TeenReader, I bet this book will get recognition. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see it in Best Of 2012 round-ups, and has been nominated for the Best Fiction for Young Adults list. I just don’t see it going the distance at the table w/the RealCommittee.

    @Mark & Beth: I agree that all three characters are problematically flat (and as Beth said, largely interchangeable), but I would not call them Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I think that’s unfair & inaccurate.

    None of them fit the original description, by Nathan Rabin: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” (Quote pulled from this excellent piece from The Atlantic Wire.)

    And even though *I* had a hard time telling Alexa & Meg apart (I kept having to remind myself: Meg is going to college & has anxiety, Alexa is a senior in HS, is very emotionally grounded & is a playwright), I know Colby doesn’t, and he doesn’t look to them to teach him how to Embrace Life.

    The big problem w/Bev is not that she’s an MPDG, but that she is a blank slate for Colby to project all his feeeeelings onto. I got the sense that Bev really had been trying, in her ineffectual way, to TRY to tell him that she wasn’t planning to go to Europe. Colby’s clearly been the enthusiastic planner. Bev is quiet, withdrawn, noncommittal, all of which should have been red flags for him. In the immortal words of Wayne Campbell, GET THE NET, Colby!

  8. Jess says:

    I agree with Laura that Colby’s voice felt a little too gender neutral. I knew a bit about the book before picking it up, but didn’t remember that the narrator was male, and it took me at least a few pages to realize he was.

    Sophie, I agree that all the good, meaty questions were the highlight of the book. For me, the characters took a backseat to those themes in a way that weakened the book. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t vote for it as a Printz contender.

  9. Nancy Werlin says:

    …Sarah Dessen-esque formula book…”

    I must comment — and this is off-topic — that because Sarah Dessen is relatively prolific, you may have lost sight of just how good she really is. It’s hard for me to think of any of her books that wouldn’t meet my own Printz bar. Just saying.

  10. Beth says:

    @Nancy Sarah Dessen is one of those authors who I think is absolutely capable of writing at least an honor-worthy book and just hasn’t yet.

    Slightly Off Topic: Wouldn’t that be an interesting post for the “off-season”.

  11. Sophie Brookover says:

    @Beth, I totally agree w/you. I think we’ll see her with a seal on the cover one day — for Edwards and/or Printz — for sure.

    And (unsurprisingly) I agree — that’s a great off-season post topic!

  12. Allison says:

    Overall I really liked this book. I also appreciated the many relevant, meaty themes. But my issue with the book is the ending. While I did believe that Colby didn’t see what was going on with Bev, I did not believe that someone so attached and invested (and deluded?) would be able to recover from a betrayal like that so easily/quickly. I’ve seen this happen–where a person’s love or infatuation for a person blinds them to that person. Bev is both Colby’s best friend and his fantasy. I agree with @Sophie that Colby was projecting his feelings and ideals onto her. So the idea that he would miss signs of her personal struggles are believable in the context of these projections and how badly he wanted his fantasies. And maybe it’s as simple as him believing her when she says something. Then, when all is revealed, Bev gets off so easy!! Colby’s reaction was mature and made for a nice ending, but I don’t think Colby was THAT mature. I think that kind of a betrayal, no matter the explanation, would have taken a very long time to heal–especially for a teenager whose hopes and dreams are all caught up in her–but Colby seemed to reach a point of acceptance in just a few days.

    And did it seem like all the characters in this book were variations on a theme? I mean, how many hipsters can you meet in one road trip?

  13. Hannahlily says:

    I really liked reading this book, and I happened to enjoy (but not love) the characters and the writing, but the plot was definitely problematic. Thin (as others have mentioned) and so many coincidences! I still would be happy to see it honored, but it doesn’t pass the “distinguished” test for me. Other than all those great themes, nothing in it seemed that special compared to many other realistic road trip books I’ve read.

    (Also, I would love to talk about authors that could write award or honor-worthy books but haven’t yet! What fun to discuss in the off-season!)

  14. Sarah says:

    Mark – I completely agree with you. I was so disappointed and underwhelmed by this book. I felt like it was trying to hard to make a point that, for me, never really got where it needed to be. I didn’t care about any of the characters and, as a result, never really cared about where the book was going.

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