A four star book from an author whose last book netted an NBA finalist nod?
But just to put it right out there — Leavitt’s latest is nothing like Keturah and Lord Death, with its mythopoeic elements and historical/fantastical setting. My Book of Life by Angel is a gritty free verse tale of a teen prostitute looking for a way out. It’s Ellen Hopkins with a dash of Paradise Lost; Angel’s closet literary sister is probably Alice, from Elizabeth Scott’s utterly harrowing Living Dead Girl.
So what do you get when you mix literary concepts with street grit?
Free verse is a complex thing. It can be what I once heard David Levithan describe as “prose with line breaks,” it can be an utter disaster, and it can be poetry. Here, it’s poetry. Occasionally, it’s transcendent:
So Melli and I
went out again where the girls are hungry
while they hunt,
prowling, silent, looking for Mr. Steak Dinner,
Mr. Baked Potato and Butter,
where the girls say, all nice as can be,
I’ll have mine rare,
just a little blood in the middle–
they lick the bones, suck out the marrow.
They can’t waste any of it.
It’s always cold at night by the sea.
The writing isn’t always at that level, but at its best, Angel’s voice is passionate and broken and beautiful.
The free verse also provides a great vehicle for a story about so much ugliness — Angel has been forced into prostitution, she has been beaten, Call threatens her and plays games with her that demoralize her, and girls are disappearing from the streets, possibly thanks to a serial killer (the afterword addresses the historical inspiration of this subplot in detail). Also, Angel has, as of the novels start, voluntarily stopped taking Call’s “candy” and is suffering some fairly extreme withdrawal symptoms. So many of these things would be difficult to impossible to convey with any grace or delicacy in prose — these are terrible things, but what is left unsaid or glossed around because of the free verse allows the emotion and meaning to come through in ways that are as palatable as they can be. More graphic language might have made this painful to the point of unreadable.
But at times the free verse highlights the small flaws in Angel’s generally strong voice. Sometimes she sounds younger than she is (“thanks, dead Serena” is something Angel says a few times, and the almost childish way of saying that when she has so powerfully evoked the effect of Serena’s disappearance doesn’t match up). When Angel sounds wise beyond her years, it can be attributed to the life she has led, but it’s hard to see how she can still be naive, and sometimes she is painfully so. Melli’s character is similarly younger than her purported age, which made me wonder if rather than 16 and 11, Leavitt wanted them to be, say, 13 and 8 and they were aged up in edits without being extensively rewritten.
Thematically, there is a lot to recommend this — Angel’s struggle to be her own person, to come to terms with and fight her way out of the life she has found herself in, is a poignant, even heart-breaking tale. And the use of Paradise Lost, both in the bizarre relationship with John the John and in the way phrases from Paradise Lost are used to frame sections and provide a larger context — this is a story about falling from grace and struggling to regain it, about normal life being a kind of paradise — it’s a literary gloss that works. Angel as a character becomes deeper through her relationship to Milton’s words and My Book of Life by Angel as a novel similarly gains depth through that connection. By and large, this is a rich and compassionate portrait of girls who are often overlooked by society, and their humanity is on sharp display here. Readers may feel uncomfortable at times. And they should. To generalize wildly, we are probably all safely removed from the harsh realities that are life for so many teens. Leavitt sensitively and often beautifully evokes their world.
But it’s cluttered. The serial killer subplot is distracting. Call’s business plan doesn’t entirely make sense. It struck me as inconceivable that Angel’s father has moved in the scant 8 months since Angel ran away, because the brief glimpse we have of him is not that able to act, much less act to let go of his daughter. Given that Call has Jeremy’s picture and his rhino, it’s also a logistical issue; how did Call find Jeremy? And then there’s the scene with Tattoo, who thinks Call won’t suspect him when he tattoos Angel. (Also, he is guided by some mysterious force to ink a wing on Angel’s back; see below for how I feel about magic in this way.) And then Call wrecks his shop but Tattoo doesn’t call the cops, which doesn’t seem to compute; either Call is a two-bit thug with grandiose ideas, as Angel’s portrayal of him seems to indicate, or he wields real power, enough to control other neighborhood figures, in which case Angel’s power struggles with Call don’t make sense. Lots of small cracks, each on its own relatively quite minor, add up to deeply flawed.
More than that, though, the question of how far this book goes is going to come down to Angel’s angel at the end — an actual angel, apparently, who, pure and literal deus ex machina-style, appears, solves the one problem Angel couldn’t solve for herself, and disappears.
For me, this was the death of the book — it changed it, and made it sort of magic realism, and diminished the powerful taking the power back that is Angel’s journey and story. Once an actual angel appears, all of the moments that could be read as random coincidence or as evidence of a higher power (the twins right after Angel says she needs to earn double) are altered — it’s not chance, and it’s not Angel’s faith that gives her strength, it’s, you know, an angel.
In the end, there is so much to recommend this book, but it doesn’t stand up to deeper scrutiny; the more deeply I read (and I’ve read it twice), the more I appreciate the writing — and the more questions I have about plausibility and characterization. In the pile we have this year, it just doesn’t measure up.
But it made at least one year-end list, so someone should be able to argue a different reading. Hit me!