I've not read Zhang's first novel, Falling into Place, but I remember it being praised. So it was a no-brainer for me to request an ARC of her sophomore novel on Edelweiss. And almost from the very beginning, it made me ... angry.
Now, I completely admit to being really emotional and stressed-out right now, but I am really over a lot of this. One of the things that I'd like to avoid for at least the next decade is the ever-fascinating manic pixie dream girl protagonist of doom. This book doesn't come out until 2016, and there aren't many reviews yet, but that's what this is. Micah and Janie grew up together. They are in love in this weird and unhealthy way (not like brother and sister. Ew. No.) but Janie's always with other guys because she's hot and popular. However, she also writes on herself with Skarpies, the knockoff Sharpies, and builds a highly symbolic pile of rocks. As one does.
Anyway, Micah and Janie realize that for their friendship/love/obsession/whatever to work, they have to be secret friends, and somehow no one in their school or in their tiny Iowa town notices that they hang out together after school. Then a Bad Thing Happens and Micah can't remember the Bad Thing and hey ... where's Janie?
I know that librarians and bloggers and writers and other book folk have been talking a lot about how YA is written for teens, and I one hundred percent agree with that. In fact, that's why this next point is, I think, salient. At Micah and Janie's small-town Iowan high school, seniors have to complete a thesis in order to graduate. Is this some sort of secret Ivy League prep school? And the topics they've chosen. Micah is doing his on apocalypses. Another student, on "cognitive biases and human failure." Janie? Hers is a multimedia autobiographical exploration of fractured fairy tales.
Are you kidding me? When I was a senior in high school, I wasn't an idiot, nor was I a slacker, but I certainly wasn't sophisticated enough to come up with anything close to that for a paper. It sounds like some sort of horridly dry grad school capstone exercise. Really: show me a school full of eighteen-year-olds who would love to spend the greatest year of public school life (sort of) writing a thesis! Noooo! Senoritis is real and it strikes without mercy! They're more interested in enjoying themselves and working on getting the heck out of Dodge.
I'm not saying teens are stupid--far from it! I'm saying that they are still young, and the people in this book are so hyperbolically self-aware and philosophical that it's practically a farce. You thought Augustus and Hazel Grace were too smart and witty and thoughtful (I'm like one of the uncool minority who liked them)? O-ho! You should meet the kids who go to high school in Waldo, IA. I found myself thinking, "What teen would pick this up and say, 'Oh, I totally go to school with that kid.' 'Janie is totally like Amber at my school!'?" This book wanted to be so profound and important that it forgot that profundity is simplicity.
There was one other thing in the book that didn't sit right with me, and that was the handling of Micah's friend, Dewey. Dewey loves Micah, but Micah is not bi--he's definitely hetero. However, Dewey says things like "Well, when you're rejected by enough girls, then we can be together," or "You know you love me." Uh, you can't make someone love you. You can't change someone's sexual orientation by sheer willpower. It completely sucks that he's in love with someone who doesn't love him back, but that's ... life.
e-ARC received from Edelweiss.