Unabridged audiobook on 1 MP3-CD. Read by Kate Rudd. Candlewick on Brilliance Audio, May, 2012. 978145589594. (Purchased.)
Twelve-year-old Fern narrates this present-tense story from the POV of a middle child - well, a sort of middle child. As the third of four children, with the fourth being something of an "oops" child, Fern went from being the baby of the family for nine years to being invisible until Charlie needs watching. Her older brother, Holden who is not yet out, is angsty and is distancing himself from Fern. She precociously views herself as his Phoebe and yeah, she's way too young to have read the book, but read it she did. Her older sister, Sara is sulkily spending a gap-year at home working in the family restaurant. She's all snarl. All the children were named for their parents' favorite children's book characters. Poor Fern and Holden, but mostly Holden. Honestly, why would a parent do that to a kid? Even in a story, especially in a story. It seems so stilted and pretentious and Jo Knowles is not that sort of writer.
So, how do you spell dysfunction? Dad is immersed in the family restaurant and constantly trying these harebrained advertising schemes that cause no end of embarrassment to his family. His latest scheme, a commercial. Really, he's clueless. Mom tries very hard to keep the peace and be the rudder, but the
Fern is solemn and resentful. She wallows in self-pity, acts the martyr and perseverates over the idea of her invisibility and how everyone takes her for granted. She's grateful that she has a best friend in Ran, Random. Um, yeah, that's his name. Ran's mom is a cancer survivor and Ran had his own problems with bullies, but he internalized a Zen philosophy and now nothing rattles him. Fern has come to rely on Ran's strength and his mantra, "All will be well." She's also wrestling with feelings for him that are more than just besties.
And then there's Charlie. Charlie is the center of the family's universe, a bubbling cauldron of energy, demands, and unconditional love. He seems infantilzed, way younger than three, which I suppose is the way with these types. I think I would have been irritated by him had I been reading with my eyes, but the voice Kate Rudd uses for Charlie soon had me grinding my teeth. "See you at Ha-wee's!!!!" Oh my god, someone set limits for this kid!
The preceding paragraphs contain some negative statements. Perhaps you think you can see where this review is going and are tempted to stop reading. I was tempted to parenthetically write "strike one, strike two,..." after each paragraph. I was also often tempted to stop reading the book more than once. But, listen, it's Jo Knowles. While I haven't read all of her books, I like what I have read and consider her a smart, incisive, and brave writer. I stuck with it.
I might not have been reacting so negatively to the family dynamics had I been reading with my eyes instead of my ears. Kate Rudd was pitch perfect, perhaps too much so because I found myself variously rolling my eyes, groaning and shouting, "Get over yourself!" while driving, by myself mind you. If you happened to notice the crazy lady in the blue Subaru talking to herself and gesticulating wildly at nothing, that was me.
Even though there were all these lovely bits of writing and incisive observations of moments large and small, the novel seemed too issue-laden. There are characters with enough issues to have books of their own here. I hadn't read too much about the book, so went in blind and will keep this review/ rumination spoiler-free. I hope.
The plot seemed to get bogged down in its own misery and then the proverbial plot twisted. Of course, I cried and felt guilty for every eye roll. That's when I had the first inkling that I'd been sucked in despite myself.
Blame. It's the heroin of dysfunctional families. Here, it seems to be self-blame, but since the story is told from Fern's POV, she views everyone's actions through her own prism of guilt. And because I was already tired of her martyr act, I wanted to shake her and say, "Snap out of it!" despite the fact that she's twelve. Yeah, I kept forgetting that she was twelve because she was so precocious and responsible.
As much as I've been criticizing and whinging, I have to say that this novel is brilliant and brave. Ms. Knowles has perfectly portrayed a family in crisis. This is messy stuff and the story evoked some messy emotions in me. Despite the dysfunction and self-absorption in Fern's family, there is love. Imperfect, but there. I loved the fact that Fern accepted Holden for who he was. I felt her pain and helplessness when she realized what Holden had been going through on the bus. I liked the fact that Holden's sexuality wasn't the main issue of the novel.
I wanted to throttle Fern's parents but could also understand the demands on them. (But I still think a call to Children's Services is in order.) Sara was a pleasant surprise. I wanted to alternately hug and smack Holden. I wanted more Ran. Cassie was amazing. Even the minister, who had a bit part, resonated.
Sure, I had some, "Really?" moments. But they're fading in the enormity of the story. Still, I appreciate the nuances as an adult, a parent, and former child in a large family. As I listened, I frequently wondered whom the audience is. Every year in my library, I have a cadre of girls who want sad, sad, sad books. The sadder the better. They are usually in fifth grade but the yen for sad seems to reassert itself in eighth. The depth of this story seems to veer toward eighth graders, but Fern is twelve. Is there too much depth for the average fifth graders? Will they be like Fern reading The Catcher in the Rye, having a basic understanding of the story but missing all the nuances?
If you're still reading, you're a trooper. I thank you and hope it was worth the trip. Feel free to agree, disagree or discuss in the comment section. I grew to appreciate this book, but I didn't love it. I don't feel the urge to rush up to the nearest middle schooler to press it into their hands, but I do have a few students I think will appreciate the story.