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Double Lives of Artists
I’ve been calling this post “double life/art ladies,” which doesn’t quite flow off the tongue as a post title, but does hint at what these two have in common — two intense teenage girls who prefer a hidden or secret life so that they can make their art. And both of these titles have a lot to say about the power of creation, especially for people who might otherwise feel powerless. As luck would have it, though, they’re also pretty different, too — one is magical realism while the other is straight up realistic fiction.
This is an ambitious novel, asking big questions and pulling two worlds together to tell a single story. There are many good parts — it’s especially strong when exploring the weirdness and uncertainty in ‘the spaces between words,’ and the way friendships, sisterhood — all relationships work. The thoughtful and rich focus on women’s and girl’s relationships was evocative and interesting, and those are the parts that will linger with me the longest.
This is a powerful premise and has many elements that should add up to something really cool. It’s a story about transitions, about changes, about the way beginnings and endings work and feel in our lives. It even uses magical realism to make these ideas coalesce into something more, something with weight and pull. Sometimes, though the actual implementation gets in the way of these lofty goals. So while the novel is sometimes evocative and often emotional, it’s also plagued with unnecessary detail, bogged down by a slow start, and Mercedes’s voice sometimes comes across as over the top.
Mercedes’s uncertainty over Victoria, about her art, is so relatable and feels real. Her relationship with Angela, too, is well developed, and I’m always going to be happy to read books where lady feelings and lady relationships are centered. Karcz explores the messy tangle of emotions that undergird and complicate friendships, and while it didn’t always untangle these emotions, I valued the exploration. And some of Mercedes’s relationships with secondary characters feel unexplored — Tall John, Gretchen, Edie, a little too.
It doesn’t always seem like a strength when the story moves away from these concerns. The magical realism adds to the development of the novel’s ideas about what it means to be an artist, about how art can be transformative to an artist. But the stuff on the Estate feels like it’s competing with the real life side of Mercedes’s experience, rather than enhancing it; the two sides of the story compete instead of working together.
This was an ambitious novel — especially considering it’s a first novel — but I’m not convinced it will go far at the table.
With three stars, Eliza is a book I go back and forth on. I love a lot about it: the fandom love and fervor, the respect for people who grapple with mental health, the honesty about the relentless drudgery that is high school, the first person narration that is somehow both self absorbed and self aware.
Zappia gives her characters a number of ways to engage with each other — there are text-based private messages, written notes, FaceTimey chats, and sometimes even f2f talking. The intense fandom friendships that can develop around a great thing, the best thing, Your Thing have their own rhythm (every Friday is Dog Days, Rainmaker posted a new fanfic and now that’s the conversation, LadyConstellation continued the story for the week, time to read and talk).
Zappia really understands fandom, respects the ways fans connect, and the fierceness of that connection. Eliza’s parents spend a lot of time questioning her friendships, and as a result, the text is allowed to interrogate what it means to be a friend, what connection looks like, especially for widely dispersed, tightly connected communities. There’s such respect for the camaraderie of fandom within the text. It’s partly because the character banter is so sparkly and funny, the inside jokes are so chummy. There are also elements of a meta-ish story within a story, with Eliza’s version of MS, Wallace’s version of MS, and the ways the fans — which include Eliza and Wallace — interact over MS.
I think this boils down to being a Mary-Poppins-for-me kind of book, really: practically perfect in every way — until I give it a good, grimlet Printz gaze. I suspect under a closer more scrutinous reread, some of the sparkle would dust off, and the characters wouldn’t be quite so shiny. The off-page characters have really fun dialogue, but we never get much of a sense of internal life for them. Eliza’s f2f people can sometimes be a bit one-note. Eliza’s emotional journey was somewhat uneven, too; the big reveal happens so late in the game that the work she’s doing with the therapist reads as rote and routine rather than an active, healing process.
Possibly most fatally for Printz talk (?) is that the Monstrous Sea elements never really add up to a truly meta story within a story. The art and the excerpts are really fun, but I’m not sure they add much weight to the story. (I mean, I’d totally read Monstrous Sea, if it were really a thing.) (Will it be a thing?) I hope this doesn’t read as too harsh a review, because this was a charming read, the romance was very sweet, and I enjoyed absolutely every second of it.
So that’s my double whammy take on these ladies living double lives, making art. What do you all think? (Or shall we begin writing and drawing Monstrous Sea in the comments?)
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.
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