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Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King
Little, Brown, October 2014
Reviewed from an ARC

OK, can I confess something? When I’ve tried to describe Glory O’Brien, I’ve started to feel like maybe I’m Stefon because there’s a lot going on here. A LOT: bat drinking, dystopias, politics, graduation, a dead mom, warring families, reclusive fathers, feminism, slutshaming, art, hippies, and STDs. Like, where are the Furbies and the screaming babies in Mozart wigs?

Which is not to say I’m not taking this review seriously (Stefon is always deadly serious anyway, right?) — with six starred reviews, with three placements on year’s best lists, A.S. King’s newest is getting a lot of love. Only, while I loved the wild ride of this read at first pass, as I’m writing this review now, it’s not entirely working. The things I loved are still there, but I have some problems and questions that are making me think twice as I write. 

I loved the Stefon-ness of the plot, the throw-everything-in-and-let’s-see-what-happens; like NYC’s hottest club, Gush, this book has everything, and King’s novel feels like something unique. They drink a petrified bat? There are visions of the future? These visions are really happening, making this part dystopia and part magical realism?  In a market with a lot of dystopia (still) around, Glory stands out — very few other books feel so euphorically comfortable with weird. (Well, Grasshopper Jungle, maybe; we’re getting to that soon.)

The strong characters, particularly prickly Glory, and the emotional honesty when describing interpersonal relationships (daughters and dads! endings of friendships!) are so satisfying. Lots of great humor, too; Glory is sly and funny inside her head. (“I took a picture of the bottles of shampoo. I called it Empty Promises.”) Glory considers herself a lone wolf with no friends, which almost made me roll my eyes (“And I didn’t fit into any conversation I ever heard because all people talked about was dumb crap that I didn’t give a shit about. Nobody talked about art.”) — until she actually talks to classmates and learn that they don’t hate her, and that maybe she might find them somewhat interesting. A big part of Glory’s coming of age is coming to terms with the fact that understanding people means interacting with them — taking action and speaking up for herself, and finding ways to connect with others. She eventually does this with classmates, with her dad, with Jasmine (indirectly), with Ellie. Glory’s own ambivalence about her future and her family and her options in life felt so true — and so neatly tied to the senior year experience, when the future looms so frighteningly large.

King uses the novel to explore big ideas — the purpose of art, the idea of fate, our ability (or lack of ability) to know and understand other people and ourselves — and there are moments that are rich and rewarding. The repetition of phrases throughout the text makes them feel momentous, weighty: Free yourself. Have courage. Everything serves to further. You’re a pornographer, too, you know. You have something to do. 

As bold as this book is, there are a few things that could keep it from getting the gold, however. A major part of the story is the slow ending of the relationship between Glory and Ellie, and I had a mixed reaction to it. Admittedly, Glory’s habitual acquiescence to Ellie’s big personality mixed with her irritation with Ellie for just being Ellie (and Glory not calling her on it, ever, even in the name of friendship) felt just right — messy and teenage-y, and true to so many friendships in real life. But Glory’s unspoken, often judgey, judgements of Ellie made me think — and then rethink. (“‘Nice shirt,’ I said, not commenting on how it was unbuttoned one button too many.”) On the one hand, they’re so starkly unfeminist in this feminist story. On the other hand, why do protagonists — especially female protagonists — always have to be nice to be likeable.  And on my mutant third hand, isn’t this judgey habit just another way to say “You’re a pornographer, too” within the story — we’re all so shaped by misogynist culture that even when we are consciously working on our feminism it’s really easy to judge someone in an unfeminist way.

A lot of this flip-flopping comes down to pacing. Because the end of the Ellie-Glory relationship is a big part of the story, the end-end — the final familial confrontation and the giving of the check — felt rushed. Glory’s ultimate realization about Ellie suffers from this suddenness. Glory seems to instantly switch from an equally immature, self centered perspective to grandly mature; it feels unearned even though that’s exactly what she’s been learning to do the whole book. If the rest of the book moved just a little faster, or if the ending slowed down just a touch, it would be more balanced, and the resolution would feel sufficient, rather than too-pat.

Additionally, there are times when Glory feels a little preachy. I mean, in a book where the major (off-page) villain is named Nedrick the Sanctimonious, maybe subtle is the wrong thing to look for. (Hilarious, obviously, but subtle, not so much.) Glory’s transmissions work as metaphor — they get her engaged with and interested in the outside world. They work to differentiate this dystopian experience from others. But they are not subtle, and sometimes Glory’s narration is not, either.

This is bold and ambitious storytelling, but it doesn’t always hang together perfectly. I loved reading it, I loved the big questions it’s still got me mulling over, but my guess is that RealCommittee will want a little more polish on their winner. But I’ve gone on for 900+ words. What do you have to say?

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Anne Bennett says:

    I loved GLORY while I was reading it and as soon as I was finished with it the book quickly faded in my mind to the point that I will have, if i ever get to it, a hard time writing the review for it. Clearly A.S. King is a fantastic writer who really knows how to put words together to make points and to draw in her readers. GLORY had so many themes and sub-themes it was difficult to decide what the point of the book was. I’m with you. I liked GLORY but think there are better books for Printz-worthy consideration.

  2. I had so many conflicting feelings about this one — my reaction after reading it was “Please, my friends, read it so I can argue about it with someone!”

    I felt that the interpersonal relationships and the coming-of-age parts were really well done, and moving, and I was surprised that a book I felt so much impatience and annoyance with really made me feel moved and teary at the end. Is Glory’s judgment of Ellie anti-feminist? Yes, but also exactly the way I was a feminist in high school, i.e., by being really judgey of everyone who clearly wasn’t as enlightened as I was. (And I worry about whether that’s what King really thinks, or whether teens could draw the wrong message from it, but that’s clearly outside the scope of the book’s literary quality!)

    I think my biggest point of concern for the book is that the central premise of the dystopia doesn’t feel real to me; and it feels unreal to me in a way that seems to stereotype, or discount the experiences of, people who are conservative. There are tons of conservative families in red states that depend on women’s incomes to stay afloat financially! The idea that it would be politically possible to outlaw women working for money, even in a place like Mississippi or Oklahoma, strikes me as ludicrous. Even when I look at the retrenchments in women’s rights of the past few years. And maybe it’s weird for me to pick on this bit of ludicrousness in a book that contains people drinking petrified bats and seeing the future as a result! — but it’s hard for it to speak to me as a feminist book in a world of “we are all equal so we don’t need feminism anymore.” (As opposed to a book like The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, for example, which spoke much more keenly to the more subtle and insidious sexism that I deal with in my life.)

    Maybe I’m asking too much for a contemporary magical-realism novel to have to bear the burden of making its dystopian future believable! And as a contemporary magical-realism novel, I think it’s mostly very effective. (I share your concerns about the ending of the Ellie-Glory arc not being worked out that well.) If it were merely unbelievable, I think that wouldn’t be as fatal a flaw to me. But it seems both unbelievable and a little contemptuous — and contemptuous, to me, is the fatal flaw. (Which is why I have Strong Feelings about Grasshopper Jungle. Which I hope I can avoid writing a novel about in the comments section.)

    • Brenda Martin says:

      I think you nailed it Emily H when you brought up Andrew Smith – I really believe that both King and Smith have an absolutely amazing book (or more!) in them, but aside from Vera Dietz (which I had a few minor issues with, but yet I agree with the Printz Honor designation), every book of theirs to me has been an almost-award book. If only X-plot point had been excised. If only certain aspects had been better edited. If only the ending was more finely crafted. Etc.

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