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When Good Authors Go Bad
Ok, I confess: the title of this post is mostly clickbait. I’m too much of a libra (and librarian) to be able to call these books anything as absolute as “bad.” The less clickbait, more classic title could be: In which the reader is disappointed in not one but two four-star books, by authors she has previously loved, and is left wondering if the fault is hers or the authors’.
There’s actually a ton here to like: intergenerational family story, good pacing, appealing characters, and a fast read. All round win, really. Certainly I gobbled it up and handed it to students as a perfect beach read.
Except that there’s a lot that doesn’t work.
Chris’s “general” delay struck me as a bit hand wavy special needs. Is it ASD? (He counts and rocks, both of which are typically associated with ASD.) It’s never named, and the rest of his behavior comes across as immature, so maybe we’re meant to think developmental delay? Or possibly Munchausen by Proxy, because it almost seems made up as a way to keep him as the baby? Mostly it read like lazy writing, and if that’s not what it is, then the text isn’t supporting the author’s work.
Likewise the other major medical issue, Mary’s Alzheimer’s. Let’s call this an accuracy flaw compounded by using Alzheimer’s as a vehicle for some messaging about the wonder of, well, wonder. The mental deterioration itself comes across as well researched and believable. But the ceaseless charming, childlike whimsy? The way Mary on page is almost always chipper and delightful and weirdly wise? No. There are, in fairness, references to her crying at night, but what’s on the actual page is Alzheimer’s as vehicle for Katie’s growth, which is both lazy writing and somewhat offensive.
It’s easy to pick a book apart, and as I said at the start, there’s a ton here to enjoy as well — which perhaps is what all those stars are about. But in the award contender conversation, this falls far short of the mark.
So, I’d like to start with the good, but actually I am really unhappy with this book.
I think — and I’m going to ruffle feathers and upset the many fans of Lubar in general and this book in particular — that this is a deeply problematic novel.
Here’s what people like about it: it’s funny (although, it’s pretty damn gallows humor and a lot of cheap puns, but rarely is it actually funny, more smirky and smart ass-y). It has a great first sex scene (which, fair enough, but I’ll talk about the problems surrounding that scene in a minute). It’s super meta and plays with the fourth wall and breaks a lot of “rules” and it’s voicey as hell, although also inconsistent (it gets weirdly flowery at the end).
So, okay, sounds great. What’s wrong with this book?
It’s really deeply steeped in the pervasive attitudes that we often point to when we talk about rape culture.
Cliff thinks about sex all the time. This may be accurate, at least for some teen males, but it’s also perpetuating the idea that girls are objects. And then he GETS REWARDED for it. He stares at Jillian’s breasts, makes some small talk (in fairness, he handles it well when she unleashes her terrible tales of woe on him — and they are terrible, and also maybe too much, a criticism Lubar tries to sidestep by saying they are too much, the same trick he uses to excuse racist and homophobic flashes — if I acknowledge this, it doesn’t count, both Cliff and Lubar seem to say — but I don’t know that it works that way). And then she says she’ll have sex with him because it’s the only way to free up his attention for the emotional stuff. WHAT? Also they don’t use a condom because she’s on the pill, and how is that okay? It takes two to tango and it takes two to agree to make it safe and this is not healthy and also why is all the responsibility on the girls shoulders? Also on the problematic gender and sex end of things Cliff’s household is basically super 1950s: mom cooks and cleans, and Cliff helps and dad is a jerk who does nothing. It does turn out that it’s a really unhealthy household (in a twist that was so clearly telegraphed it was a lot like those fists were hitting me over the head), but the gender division is never addressed, even at the end.
There are some other flaws: Jimby is a device, and — much like Mary, above — it’s not really ideal when a secondary character’s struggle and reality are only there to serve the ends of the main character; it’s even worse here, when it’s a disabled character serving as a vehicle for a non-disabled character’s growth. Butch and Robert are stereotypes, especially Robert (also the only character of color). (All the diversity seems to be tokenism and designed to make Cliff look good, actually). The plotting, especially the too neat repeats of girlfriends past with Jillian, is hokey and unbelievable. The boys have a fight (an occurrence which is made out to be normal, because apparently boys fight and girls choose presents well; see above paragraph) and suddenly Cliff is a hero? I know he’s an unreliable narrator, but still. None of these flaws are my biggest beef, but the thing I find most troubling about this book might not be easy to quantify and discuss at the table if this gets that far; these smaller issues, on the other hand, fall more clearly within the criteria.
And yet — Cliff is a pretty engaging narrator, even as he perpetuates terrible things. For all the underlying sexism, Cliff tries really hard to do right by Jillian. And the puns are punny indeed. People will read this. The literary and meta elements scream award winner; I hope the RealCommittee recognizes the flaws as well as the good stuff.
So there you have it: two of my biggest disappointments of the 2016 season.
Anyone want to try to argue for the other side?
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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