Picture Me Gone. It’s earned five stars. It’s on three 2013 best lists*, and it was a National Book Award finalist.
What am I missing?
I’ve read it twice now and my reaction is still just, “meh.” There are no glaringly obvious flaws, but this is the kind of book that just floats out of one’s consciousness the moment you finish the last sentence. Unlike There is No Dog, which I actively loathed (and it didn’t get much love here on the blog), I feel ambivalent toward this book. Part of that feeling is due to that ephemeral quality I mentioned before, but I think it’s also because this is ultimately good but forgettable work.
Meg Rosoff is brilliant at accessible stream-of-consciousness writing. She uses the narrative style here with Mila, the highly perceptive twelve-year-old who is also the novel’s narrator. Being so close to Mila’s thought process makes sense when you are telling the story of a young girl who is able to make connections that are invisible to others; this is when the style and voice are best and strongest.
But Mila herself is not as interesting as the technique that creates her. She’s a precocious, unusual child but even these qualities do not make her particularly noteworthy. Mila is the observant puzzle solver who couldn’t see the obvious answer to the mystery of her father’s missing friend. Although this character development works well enough, it ends up being a bit overshadowed with Mila’s hurt that her parents kept her in the dark about Matthew, followed by her rationalization for dishonesty and secrets in general. There are flawed, complicated adults but we see them in vignettes through Mila’s eyes who, in comparison, is too well-adjusted to really care about.
Likewise, the prose is technically well done—and sometimes achingly gorgeous—but it builds a story that isn’t meaningful. Mila’s thoughts often turn to her friend, Catlin whose parents are going through a messy divorce. Referring to Catlin, Mila thinks, “…if my family had been like hers, I might have been equally desperate to come up with the right combination of prime numbers to make the world safe again.” This sentence breaks my heart every time I read it, but it leads nowhere. Mila has already come to terms with why Catlin is sometimes a distant friend even at the beginning of the novel, where this quote appears, so it’s a nice sentence that doesn’t have much significance to the book as a whole.
The larger problem is that both times I read this book, I found myself thinking, “what’s the point?” by the end. There are no major thematic revelations about honesty or relationships, the mystery of the missing friend that sets the plot in motion is really just a MacGuffin, and Mila’s emotional resolution comes too late (and too easy) to be moving. All summer I tried to pinpoint why I didn’t consider this book to be a major contender, but I think it’s similar to the problem I have with Far Far Away; the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Here again I ask the question I posed at the beginning of this review. What am I missing? Is it possible I hold Meg Rosoff to an impossible standard because of my strong love for how i live now? Convince me in the comments, because I would love to see this book in another light.