Today’s post about inexplicable book love inaugurates two series: the regularly scheduled Friday “Why?” and the whenever-the-heck-we-feel-like-it Why I Love It.
Sometimes the depth of my love for a book is inexplicable, even to me.
I felt this way about TWILIGHT (the first book more than the subsequent ones, which I liked a lot less). The characters annoyed me; I felt like we were constantly told that Bella was tough, but only saw her being sniveling and moonish. Edward struck me as a condescending prick. I agree with every feminist critique.
Yet I was completely captivated by the story as they fell for each other and Bella pursued the mystery of the Cullens. The week after I read the book, I reread the first 300 pages — up until when they were definitively together. Ironically, once the actual suspense plot emerged in the form of threat from other vampires, the story was over for me; the story I’d fallen for was Bella and Edward falling for each other, and from this point on I thought the book consisted entirely too much of them talking about their great love for one another. Ugh. But despite the contempt I sometimes felt for the book while I was reading it, I clearly got something out of it. I’m a slow reader, and rereading 300 pages is not something I do lightly.
This, in a way, is how I feel about my favorite Sarah Dessen novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT FOREVER.
The Truth About Forever
TTAF is a flawed book, much more so, in my opinion, than THIS LULLABY or JUST LISTEN (which I think is objectively her best book*).
The main problem with it is that several of the characters are completely caricatured. When I read it, I adjust it in my head so that one character (Jason) suffers from serious Asperger’s syndrome, while another (Monica) is mildly retarded; it’s the only way I can make sense of their behavior. (And that’s not even getting into Macy’s coworkers at the library.)
Sometimes the inexplicable characterizaton is Dessen stretching her love of metaphor too far. That’s my take on one character (Delia)’s refusal to fix a big freakin’ hole in her driveway, because “some things are better left unfixed,” or some such nonsense. No… that would be false. The crater in your driveway is better off fixed, and Dessen’s better off when she’s not sacrificing believable characters to make her point.
Worse yet, for me, I feel like Dessen stacks the deck at the book’s climax. Without giving away specifics of the denouement, let’s just say that when a character needs to finally make a choice that the entire book has been building toward, Dessen makes the path she’s already won the readership to even more blindingly obvious by having someone act like a complete ass. Not necessary.
So why do I call this my favorite Dessen novel? Because I feel compelled to re-read it every nine months or so, and I love it every time. The appeal of this kind of book, for me, is the fantasy of the guy falling for me; with Wes, it’s an attractive fantasy. And what Dessen, like Meyer in TWILIGHT, utterly masters in TTAF is the slow build from crush to relationship — with plenty of small advances along the way. It’s these small moments — the unexpected escalation of the flirtation — that are what I read and re-read for.
One of the TTAF reviewers on Amazon complains that Wes is utterly bland; one of my favorite book bloggers even calls his ability to solve Macy’s problems, all while lacking a personality of his own, “Sarah Dessen Syndrome.”**
They’re not wrong, but maybe for me that’s the point; he’s the perfect foil for a book that’s really about Macy. What’s appealing about Wes is that he falls for Macy. But Dessen makes it fun by not dwelling on telling us about Macy’s feelings of unlovability; instead, she lets us feel Macy’s roller coaster of continuous humiliation punctuated by amazement at the growing realization that this guy actually likes her. It works for me.
I think that’s also why THIS LULLABY didn’t do quite as much for me, especially the first time I read it. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed it just fine, and expect to for years to come. But the point of this book is in large part imagining quirky Dexter falling for you, and the thing is — I’ve had that kind of quirky boyfriend. And frankly, mine was better.
* excluding from consideration Lock and Key, which I’m not reading until the paperback comes out in April; Dessen is one of the authors that provokes my pronounced book-buying fetish.
** This same blogger’s “Sarah Dessen Syndrome 2″ (from the same post), namely the guy bugging the girl until she realizes he was right all along, her emphatic “Not interested!” did mean nothing, and he’s perfect for her!, is something I find a lot harder to tolerate. This is my biggest issue with THIS LULLABY.