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!