Double feature crisis show!
Today we’ve got not one but two — TWO! — reviews for the price of one click. Really, these two books — Fat Angie and 17 & Gone — have very little in common, but they are both March pubs and have some thematic overlap, dealing as they do with girls in distress. Not damsels in distress, but the kind of deep-seated internal anguish that is too often intrinsic to teen girls, saddled as they are with expectations and beliefs and the need to always be aware.
One of the things I (Joy) am very aware of as a reviewer is how my life experience influences my perception of accuracy. This conversation started to develop when we discussed The Lucy Variations and I find it relevant to my reading of Fat Angie as well.
The premise is tragic with a side of quirky: our titular protagonist is an overweight teenager dealing with the bullies at school, a cold mother, a mean adopted older brother, and a sister who has almost certainly been killed in Iraq. Charlton-Trujillo explores Angie’s coming-of-age, which is precipitated by the arrival of new girl, KC Romance, who sparks Angie’s interest and then desire. Accuracy is the significant guideline for my reading of this work because despite the stylistic flair frequently on display in the text, the characterizations aren’t just flat, they come across as flat-out wrong.
I take particular issue with Angie’s classmates. High school is full of angst; teens are mean; every school will have bullies—these are realities I am willing to accept exist in varying degrees in every school across the country at this moment. But Angie isn’t just overweight and a little odd; this is a girl who, after reports of her sister’s death started to flood the news, attempted suicide in front of the entire school at a pep rally. That one girl, Stacy Ann, could bully Angie mercilessly makes sense because Charlton-Trujillo gives that character a backstory to explain her anger (in a slightly inelegant revelation, but it works within the narrative). It’s much harder to accept that a large group of teenagers led by Stacy Ann could be so cruel to a girl in crisis. Maybe I’m an idealist or maybe I have a skewed perspective because in my professional career working with teenagers, I’ve never seen bullying on this kind of scale. Regardless of why, I don’t buy for one second the bullying that Angie experiences in this novel.
There are more than just problematic bullies here; Angie’s champions are similarly perplexing. KC Romance seems to have no clear reason for her gravitation to Angie other than instinct, which doesn’t entirely make sense given KC’s cool, mysterious persona. Sure, KC recognizes that Angie’s an outsider and picked on, but that doesn’t explain how they become so close. (Also, her name is KC Romance. This is trying way too hard to sound like a funky bad-girl name.)
There are elements in the book that really work beautifully; the nature of loss and how it affects already fragile teens is thoughtfully woven throughout the story. Charlton-Trujillo has a strong voice and style, playing with rhythm and form, in a third-person limited narrative that often feels like first (in a good way). The more I think about this one though, more and more flaws come to the surface, making it impossible to truly consider this a contender this year. Perhaps you feel differently?
I (Karyn now — isn’t this confusing?) went into this wanting to love it. Suma has a way with a sentence that is really special. Gorgeous, even: just look at that opening paragraph. There’s an almost poetic elegance on display; rhythm and repetition play a part, certainly, but I’m also struck by the way long and short sentences alternate to give a sense of relentless forward motion. Language here propels the story and matches it with intensity and drive.
From a sentence level, I am all about this one.
And the premise is intriguing. I want the story of the way girls disappear, the story set out in those first pages, where girls disappear in ways dangerous and safe, realistic and impossible, tragic and mundane. There was a set up there about what it means to be a girl, about how big and dangerous and unknowable the world is and how girls on the cusp of womanhood are also dangerous and unknowable, but also endangered.
In the end, though, I felt that the promise made in that opening didn’t entirely pan out. Maybe this is one of those moments where the book I read wasn’t the book I wanted and the failing is the reader’s (i.e., mine) and not the writer’s, but I found myself feeling as if the text itself set up one story but delivered a slightly different one — the text says this is a tale about girls, but the story in the end is about one girl and her dubious sanity. Of course, the narrative voice is Lauren’s voice, and maybe it’s not that the book fails to make good on the thematic scope it seems to promise; maybe it’s Lauren who wants her story to be part of something bigger but ultimately it’s not, and so the book is not either?
If that’s the case, and that’s the case on purpose, then maybe this is a stronger contender than I’ve been giving it credit for.
I’m also struggling with the sense that I didn’t actually LIKE this one very much, and trying to determine if there’s something in the text that left that sense of dislike. It’s odd to find the writing so powerful and well executed and still walk away dissatisfied with the text as a whole, so I’ve been thinking about other aspects. Characterization? There were many moments where I was more compelled by the stories of the lost girls Lauren imagines than I was by Lauren herself. Especially Fiona, who may be something more than a delusion (and I did find that uncertainty and the ending, which exploits that — ghost? Or girl who won’t let go of her own mental illness? — very strong). Pacing? For me, there were moments that dragged. Ultimately I can’t say with absolute conviction whether these responses are a question of taste or of some shortcoming in the writing, so I’m hoping others will have opinions. Probably I should go back and reread, but the dislike factor has me reluctant to do so unless someone can convince me this is top, say, 15 material — basically, if I were a RealCommittee member, this would not be my nomination. If it would be yours, speak up.