Thursday, September 17, 2009

Like in that Insurance Commercial

You know that feeling when you read a book, and you're about three chapters into it and all you can think is "where is the author going with this?"

But then you have this sneaking suspicion that this author knows what she's doing--maybe because you've read previous books, or maybe because you want to give her the benefit of the doubt. It doesn't really matter why you keep reading. All that matters is that you're willing to trust the author and go along for the ride.

And you know that feeling you get when you reach the final chapters of that same book and the author managed to pull off what you thought was impossible and the ending totally delivers?

That was exactly how I felt when I read Carolyn Mackler's Tangled. Having read all of her previous books (in fact, I wrote a term paper on her books last fall) I was excited... but also slightly terrified... to read this book. This is a new approach for her, juggling four different point of view characters (two of them are boys!), and telling a story in short spurts rather than one long narrative that spans the entire novel.

I was worried about a lot of things. Like what if it wasn't really one story? What if it turned out to be four loosely-connected novellas? Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with novellas, but if I'm sitting down to read a novel, I have certain expectations. Like, I need an overarching narrative, however loose that narrative may be. And I want to see the characters grow and change throughout the book. How on earth was Mackler going to pull this off if she was jumping from one character to another and if each character's story takes place in a different time/place than the other stories?

When I read Jena's story, my apprehensions grew exponentially. Jena's character is an archetype we've seen in Mackler's work before (in particular, the protagonists in her first 3 books all have certain similarities to Jena). But the thing that always made Mackler's depiction of this archetype satisfying in her other books is that, in the end, the smart-but-not-very-popular girl who's insecure about her looks always seems to learn to accept herself as she is. It's a message of empowerment that I always looked forward to in Mackler's work. Needless to say, by the end of Jena's section of Tangled I was devastated. It felt like the message was: life sucks, and it keeps on sucking.

With each subsequent section of the book, I grew more relieved. At first, I was worried that we would be getting a "grass is always greener" moral and that the point of the book was just to show that even so-called popular kids have problems. But I should have known that Mackler wouldn't settle for an answer that easy. In the end, this book isn't just about seeing the other side of a situation or understanding how the other person feels. Really, this book is about reaching out to that other person. The structure of the book perplexed me at first. We see a lot of "before" and "after" moments with these characters, but we rarely see the actual change. Most of the time, the moment of transformation happens "offstage" between sections and are mentioned only in passing. Then it occurred to me that this book really isn't about change at all. The fact that these characters will change is a given, but what truly matters is how these characters help to transform one another.

This is an interesting departure for Mackler. While her previous books have mostly focused on one protagonist's path to self-discovery and acceptence, this book emphasizes the importance of connection with others. In the end, I had nothing to worry about, but in doing so, I became all the more invested in wanting to see how Mackler was going to pull this off. Suffice to say, she did so beautifully.

I should have known all along that I was in good hands.

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