SCROLL DOWN TO READ THE POST
I’ve been dragging my feet with this one. I have plenty of excuses: the holiday weekend, my son’s (minor) surgery, major new unit coming up at school that I need to plan for. But those are just hot air; I have managed to write up books under far less ideal circumstances. Really it was that the posts where I point out flaws in widely acclaimed books are my least favorite to write.
And yet I keep doing it! So once more into the fray, my friends.
Midnight at the Electric, Jodi Lynn Anderson
HarperTeen, May 2017
Reviewed from final copy
The usual caveats apply: despite the criticisms I’m about to level, this is still an excellent book — I just don’t think it’s quite as top of the heap as the reviews indicate. Midnight showcases a lot of what Anderson does well — lovely writing, emotionally resonant beats, unexpected and compelling situations. It lacks the fantasy element she deftly employed in The Vanishing Season but adds a science fiction element. The structure is interesting; story inside story inside story, a nesting set of tales that we read in backwards order, but which considered in linear time, inform one another (and ok, in fairness, that alone might deserve the stars, except that the concept is stronger than the execution). Adri’s future-set frame holds within it Catherine’s Dust Bowl/Great Depression narrative, which in turn contains Lenore’s WWI tale. All three hang together through some recurring motifs. Electricity is a metaphor for the spark between individuals and also in Catherine’s tale a force in its own right (at the carnival most obviously, but also in the lights of New York and the promise they hold). And all three hold together as tales of young women who are seeking connections and mourning what they don’t have.
(Side note: I really wanted the carnival sideshow for which the book is titled to be more, given that it’s called out in the title. It’s interesting to have that one element highlighted even before the reader opens the book; it skewed my sense of expectation for what might happen at midnight at the Electric, which in turn made that part of the narrative a bit anticlimactic. I have less and less patience for flap copy and titles and their misleading charms; when the reader is drawn in by some aspect that is misrepresented, it hurts the book. For more on flap copy sins, stay tuned for Jane, Unlimited.)
So, the good is on display, in the structure and the writing and the characterization. Sounds like a frontlist contender, right?
Except. This is a jampacked novel (and it’s not a doorstopper). Adri’s tale ultimately hit the right emotional buttons, but the science fictional/future setting didn’t have time to breathe. It takes a lot to set up a convincing world (I think maybe I JUST went on and on about this). I can’t tell if Anderson is weak at sci-fi or if she just didn’t have the pages to explain the world she had in her mind, but either way it never comes to life. I didn’t entirely buy that this science would exist in the nearish future. More than that, it doesn’t al make sense. They have portable 3D printers that make car parts and dinner, but where do the raw materials come from? Why have a fridge and then 3D print a meal? What does it even mean to 3D print a meal?? This is a minor detail, but it’s right up front and center, and then it all gets tossed aside, because actually it’s mostly immaterial to the story being told, except as a really significant reason Adri needs to figure out how to be a better person. (Speaking of: the world is also weakened by Adri’s selection as a colonist; she’s the kind of antisocial that would never pass the psych tests.) That’s weak world-building, and because Adri’s is the frame story, all those flaws preface everything else, which diminishes the strengths that were on display in later sections.
And then there’s the weakness of the connections; Lily is a found relative who just happens to live in this house where some other women lived, who aren’t actually related. They are connected, through the house and Galapagos (and my head canon is that Ellis is Lily’s father*), but it feels a little bit pasted together, multiple story ideas packed into one frame. Sofia is the connective tissue that ties Lenore and Catherine to Lily and Adri. The connection felt tenuous without her journey to the farm playing a role
That connection is one of family you choose, which is a motif throughout, but it doesn’t come across as strongly because Sofia, whose friendship with Catherine is the most powerful example of this, is relegated to magical brown (or at least Mexican-American) person who saves the day. Sofia is a compelling character; she’s a strong, independent and knowledgable woman in the 1930s, and at some point after moving to the farm she either has a child on her own or keeps her own name and gives it to her daughter — that’s some serious strength, especially as a Mexican-American woman with no family around her. But she’s there just to solve the problem and disappears once Cathy takes off, even though as Lily’s mother you might expect her to cast a long shadow over the novel.
Again, there is plenty here to admire, but I don’t find that this holds up to the very best of the year. And so it wouldn’t be my nomination — but those five stars convince me it would be someone’s. So if it would be yours, won’t you weigh in in the comments and provide the counter to my points?
(*Here’s my head canon: Sofia and Catherine fall in love — I totally thought the novel was headed that way — but Catherine and Beezie and Beth leave for England anyway. Sofia won’t let go of the idea of the farm, and also mixed race lesbian couples in the 30s are not exactly embraced by society, and maybe in this head canon they don’t entirely even understand what they are feeling for each other and it isn’t consummated, which aligns better with the text, so Sofia heads to the farm, where Ellis has been holding down the fort. They bond over their love for the absent one, repeating Lenore and James’ sharing of intimacy for reasons that aren’t exactly related to lust or love, making it all beautifully cyclical. Sofia ends up pregnant (more cyclical elements!), but before she tells Ellis he — hmm, actually I don’t know, he’d totally stick around if he knew there was a baby. Either he heads off after Cathy or he dies in some tragic way. This is all predicated on the fact that I don’t remember anything about Lily’s father and I didn’t take any notes on it, but I read this months ago and only skimmed it last week rather than a full reread, so maybe someone will point out that Lily’s father is named and I just forgot. But I like the idea that the connections are more explicit in this imaginary version, and I can’t get this theory out of my head, so.)
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.
SLJ Blog Network