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Places No One Knows

placesPlaces No One Knows, Brenna Yovanoff
Delacorte Press, May 2016
Reviewed from an ARC

Maybe here is a good time to say, I love Brenna Yovanoff. I love her writing, her dark and delicious fantasies. This fifth title is more along the lines of magical realism than straight out fantasy. The slow and sweet Waverly/Marshall relationship notwithstanding, Yovanoff takes an unflinching look at aggression and dysfunction in high school, and the results are dark — not so much with the creepy factor, but it’s decidedly a dark take on the high school experience. Places has garnered three starred reviews, and it’s easy to lay out why: strong characterization, important themes, and a delicate mix of genres. Does this have staying power once RealCommittee gets to the table, though?

Conversation at the table will be able to focus on the strong characterization. Waverly and Marshall are standouts, of course, but even secondary characters have moments of nuance, where we can connect with them and understand them. Maribeth might be easy to hate, but Waverly shows us moments of vulnerability amidst all that aggression. Marshall’s parents are off-page almost every time they’re mentioned, have managed to spread their dysfunctional marriage all over their family, and yet they’re human and relatable (even when they’re hateful). The dialogue is layered and indirect; even as these teens seek to connect with each other, they keep themselves hidden in masks and indirection in such realistic ways.

RealCommittee will also be able to get all excited about the thoughtful examination of ladies and likability (definitely my favorite motif of the year, THANKS AUTHORS!) and girl aggression. Waverly’s journey to understanding herself is refreshingly about getting all her relationships right, from family to friends, and then to romance. 

Yovanoff mixes magical realism (not ever quite full-fledged fantasy) and romance, and the two genres work well together. The darkness of Waverly and friends mixes brilliantly with the sweetness of Waverly and Marshall and the tragedy of Marshall and his family. Nothing is simple; the ending is hard-earned and emotional.

The magical realism worked for me on another level, too — there are definite Cinderella elements that get played with throughout the story (the prom, there’s even a fairy godmother figure, and there are feet all over this novel), but it’s never too obvious or too on-the-nose. The fairy tale pieces can come out to play because there’s so much of the novel that exists in a liminal not-sleeping, dreamlike magic place. Maybe this is also because so much of Waverly’s perception of the world is stretched and distorted by her insomnia. Yovanoff doesn’t get too detailed with the magic pieces — Waverly tests the rules a little, and Marshall freaks out a little —  but mostly Yovanoff allows the magic to get the story going and then get out of the way. This is more about an emotional journey than building a magical world.

Are there things that will not work for RealCommittee? I wonder how all this works on a second read — I wonder if everything hangs together once you already know what’s coming? The dreamy, evocative, emotional qualities may not withstand a re-read. And although both Waverly and Marshall have distinct and interesting voices, I suspect you could make the argument that they’re overly mannered in their narration. Though…that’s a matter of taste, and who knows what RealCommittee will actually say about it! Karyn + commenters already mused about genres and literary worthiness on Monday; now I’m wondering about how excited I’d feel if a fantasy-romance featuring a slightly unlikeable lady won the gold. That would be subversive!

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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. This book is completely forgettable. I’m not kidding. I read the book and within a few weeks I couldn’t remember anything about it. Even when I was reading your review I couldn’t remember any of the details until you mentioned the insomnia. I hate it when it when I found a book to be completely unremarkable and now I know I missed a lot on my read-through. I should ask some of my students to read this one and see what they think.

  2. Kristin C says:

    I was really conflicted about this book. I love Brenna Yovanoff, though i’ve never considered her writing distinguished. However, it’s usually really solid. This was still really solid, though it felt like I was reading about a high school the author saw in an 80s movie rather than one she actually attended. It felt a little too exaggerated to me, and Waverly seemed brittle to the point of caricature at times. I also felt the fantasy elements were really thinly drawn, though I liked the premise. I just felt more could have been done with the world building. Then again, it probably would have dragged out the story. I did really like this book though!

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Huh, and I did totally identify with Waverly, and (maybe because of that) didn’t miss world building/explanations of the magic. A part of that might also be that I thought the opposites attract love story really worked well.

      The high school politics/mean girl stuff to me fit right in, partly because I could believe Waverly as a character who understood social power plays before she really thought about social ethics. Yeah — I really did identify with her as a reader!

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