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Every Exquisite Thing

Every Exquisite Thing, Matthew Quick
Little, Brown, May 2016
Reviewed from ARC

Authenticity feels different to every reader. We all do our best to base our judgement against our personal experiences and knowledge, while acknowledging that there’s a whole lot we don’t know. When I think about the emotional accuracy of a novel, I’m usually thinking about authenticity. Did reading that book remind me what it felt like to be a teenager? Did it reflect how I feel as a human? Matthew Quick’s Every Exquisite Thing affirmatively does both of these things for me and the novel’s voice and characters are the elements that make this book worth talking about.

The premise, if you examine it closely, is almost absurd. A teenage girl becomes so obsessed with an out-of-print cult-classic book, she befriends the author (who is, of course, a recluse) and through this friendship, she meets a tortured poet and falls in love. And it spins out from there. Like I said, the plot is cuckoo banana pants but most of the character development is not. Quick’s portrayal of Nanette is sensitive and thorough. She narrates her own story and is a girl I recognized immediately. I was Nanette in many ways and there are probably countless other girls and women who will see themselves in this character. She is a girl who’s always done what other people have wanted or expected of her. She has friends, but no one who she can trust with her secrets. She has no idea what she wants out of life, but she knows it’s not what she sees in her parents or what they want for her. In this identity vacuum, she finds meaning in a novel. A novel in which she sees her own apathy and confusion. The depths of her emotions are felt throughout the text, expressed in her interactions and reactions with other characters. Nigel Booker, the author of The Bubblegum Reaper brings out her rebellious side; Alex, the tortured poet who she falls for helps her discover that she does care about her own life. Her parents bring out her anger. We see all these aspects of Nanette because Quick makes all of the dialogue meaningful.

Her voice is strong and consistent throughout. There’s a section in the second half of the story when Nanette switches to using third person (a therapy technique which seemed questionable to me). Honestly, it’s an annoying change but it does show how differently Nanette thinks about herself when she has to take an extra step back when she speaks. Her voice is more distant and analytical, but ultimately she snaps back to first person when she needs to reclaim her identity. It’s a bit corny but it works.

Nanette’s journey after reading The Bubblegum Reaper makes sense because I believe that art can inspire people to reassess their lives or help people understand themselves. Although the book she loves sounds like nonsense, her devotion to it and its power in her life is completely serious. I won’t presume to speak for Quick, but I could make an argument that The Bubblegum Reaper is purposefully ludicrous. It demonstrates that art can provide answers to questions we didn’t even know we were asking. The darker side to this is Alex. Even through the eyes of our narrator (who is in love), Quick is able to show that Alex is mentally unstable and that his love for The Bubblegum Reaper is fueling dangerous thoughts and behaviors. He’s obsessive and he becomes increasingly manic, taking skewed meaning from the novel to justify bad decisions. That Quick shows both of these sides to the book-reader relationship suggests that although we can find comfort from the right book at the right time, we must also have a strong sense of self in order to prevent sliding too far into the fictional world.

If you couldn’t tell yet, I got a lot out of this book. I connected with the material because Nanette is a fully-realized character I felt like I had known my entire life. However, it’s taken me a few months to come to the conclusion that my emotional response to this book masked its flaws. The plot has one subplot too many; a young boy (who’s a tertiary character) doesn’t sound like any child I know; and the events are oddly paced. As I was reading, these criticisms all took a backseat while I sorted through my feelings. Although this is a novel that is well-worth a look if you’re interested in female coming-of-age stories, it doesn’t hold up to a close reading so I doubt anyone will champion it as a Printz nominee.

Only a couple stray thoughts:

  • Alex’s poetry is horrid. It’s meant to be horrid, right?
  • The subplot about Booker’s real-life inspiration for The Bubblegum Reaper held zero interest for me and it didn’t add anything to the larger theme of art’s connection to real life.
  • For an alternate critical take on Every Exquisite Thing, Marjorie Ingall wrote a laser-focused review for The New York Times. I agree with every word of her review (I was also bothered by the generalizations about women Quick makes by holding Nanette up as different), yet I still love this book for all the reasons stated above. Because feelings, yo. I can talk about problematic faves all day.
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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. I connected with this one too, even though I realize it has no chance at being a contender.

  2. I respect and value our differences! Problematic faves ahoy!

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Hooray! I usually don’t read other reviews before I post my own, but I’m glad I read yours because it reminded me of thoughts I had while reading (but dismissed) because I was digging the story. I’m glad I was able to link to it because it’s an important reading to address. Quick doesn’t have a great track record with female characters and while I loved Nanette, you’re 100% right that she’s the “cool girl” that Gillian Flynn describes in Gone Girl–and it’s a fairly negative portrait of women.

  3. In addition to the flaws you pointed out I just didn’t feel like this one got where it was trying to go quite well enough to be a true contender.

  4. It was really interesting to read your review of this book Joy because I felt so very disconnected from the story and characters while I was reading it. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I really disliked the book and was dissatisfied with almost everything about it (to the point that I paused to check my own review to see what exactly made this a miss for me). I was frustrated by how white the book was and by how white the “canon” of writers Nanette discovers were as well. This might have been deliberate to show how insular Nanette’s world is but I didn’t see any work to explain that on the page.

    I also had a hard time getting past the one-sided representation of the majority of female characters (besides Nanette) as routinely over-sexualized and vapid. It fell into the trap of making Nanette “not like other girls” and also seemed to demonstrate a very dismissive attitude that was decidedly not present for the male characters. I also felt that acted as shorthand for a lot of Nanette’s characterization throughout the novel. It seemed that every character was treated with a high level of disdain by the author. It felt like Quick didn’t much care about or like his characters which left me wondering why I should.

    I thought the premise was interesting though ineffectively executed and there was potential for feminist themes as well with Nanette’s arc but by the end of the novel I found that thread to be poorly handled. (I found that The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen handled similar feminist themes in the story but to much greater effect.)

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      Dismissive is the perfect word to describe how Quick treats the female characters who are not Nanette. Although Nanette has depth and dimension to her, I agree that the one-dimensionality of the rest of the female characters takes the book out of contention.

      Regarding the book’s whiteness; that didn’t take me out of the novel because I think it reflects the fact that many people still live in very homogenous communities. Nanette does live in an insular world, as you mentioned, so the sameness of it makes sense.

      In terms of Printz criteria, if anything, this would be an accuracy issue but I think it passes. For novels in general, I’m more bothered by the inclusion of people of color when the portrayal isn’t quite right (Eleanor & Park, which I adore, has the uncomfortably generic characters DeNice and Beebi, black girls who befriend Eleanor). Hard to speak in hypotheticals, but I suspect that Quick writing non-white characters may have felt unnatural. Furthermore, his tendency to reduce secondary and tertiary characters to single characteristics would read as racially insensitive in a non-white character.

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