In ZanesvilleI loved everything about this book.
I’m a big fan of good young adult fiction for its sense of self-centeredness, desperation, and hope. I’m also a big fan of good adult adult fiction for its bleakness, meditativeness, humor, and realism. This book is the best of both of my favorite fictional worlds. Jo Ann Beard moves seamlessly through adolescent junior high school scenes and dialogue to the adult meditations of her narrator, combining both the more tactile aspects of young adult fiction and tI loved everything about this book. I’m a big fan of good young adult fiction for its sense of self-centeredness, desperation, and hope. I’m also a big fan of good adult adult fiction for its bleakness, meditativeness, humor, and realism. This book is the best of both of my favorite fictional worlds. Jo Ann Beard moves seamlessly through adolescent junior high school scenes and dialogue to the adult meditations of her narrator, combining both the more tactile aspects of young adult fiction and the contemplative aspects of adult fiction.The novel begins with the following sentiment that pretty much shapes the tone of the rest of the novel: “We can’t believe the house is on fire. It’s so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all.” The fact that the feeling of embarrassment is the FIRST feeling underscores the narrator’s egotistical teenage self, and this idea of embarrassment is one that remains steadfast through the entire book. The second feeling – of danger – represents the very real reality of a massive change, a shift – a “fire” – in the narrator’s life. That fear and self-conscious defines teenage life as most of us know it. However, it’s not just teenage life, though – this is life always, bar none. And, Beard does a fantastic job of showing that it is not just teenagers who undergo these strange and disconcerting feelings. No matter what stage of life, we’re all awkward – all the time. Though adolescence is the time most associated with the change into “real” life and thought (to the abstract from the concrete), Beard shows us that whether we’re two teachers who have a crush on each other, a mother who feels abandoned by her husband and family, teenage girls trying to navigate our way through friendship, boys, and popularity, or a little boy who wants to surround himself with imaginary soldiers and warfare, life is never not real for any of us at any time. The characters in this book are pretty amazing. The narrator, who is virtually nameless (she indicates that
she shares a name with a character from Little Women, but we never actually hear her, or anyone, say her name), is an Everywoman. Although all of the characters are different, the narrator, in some way or another, represents all of their inner anxieties, namely the paradoxical feelings of being both invisible and scrutinized, of – as Beard beautifully writes – being “both relevant and absurd.” I loved that Beard has her narrator interested in surrealist art, which is actually what the previous quotation is referring to, and uses it as the metaphor for some of these major themes in the novel. I also like the way Beard represents important moments as "worlds colliding." Whenever something big is about to happen to the narrator in her present adolescent life, she immediately goes back to a childhood memory in her mind. This is her safety net in a time of confusion, and I think that feeling will resonate with many people - the idea of trying to distance oneself, yet remain in, a real and, possibly scary, moment. The narrator’s mother is probably my favorite character in the book. Both involved and detached, caring and mean, central and meaningless, if there was a Platonic Mom, she would be it. Some could argue that she might be an underdeveloped character – we don’t really get any back story on her or any glimpses into the interior of her mind. But, the book is from the narrator’s point of view, and she’s in ninth grade. The whole vision of the mother is through her eyes, and Beard paints a completely realistic portrait of the way a mother would look and sound to a 14 year old. I laughed almost every time that the mother was involved in a scene. Her sarcasm, self-pity, and passive-aggressiveness add good humor to the novel. I could see my own mother talking to me in the same way, and I could see myself reacting to my mother in the same way the narrator does. The one other aspect of the book that is interesting but has left me stumped for meaning is all of the oral fixations (that might not be the right word here, but I’m going with it). There is a lot of focus on food (especially food that won’t be eaten or that grosses people out), the mother smokes incessantly, and the father is an alcoholic. There is a lot of anxiety, which manifests itself in these scenes with the food especially. I’ll be interested to see what my book club friends think....more