by Elizabeth Laban
Published by Knopf
on January 8, 2013
My take: When Duncan arrives at his new room at the Irving School, he finds the traditional surprise left for him by a graduating senior. Usually this surprise ranges from the sublime (a bottle of scotch or Yankees tickets) to the ridiculous (three-month-old pizza or a puppy.) But Duncan is left something truly puzzling: a pile of CDs. He begins to play them, and gets drawn in to a story told by Tim, a recent grad who attended Irving for his final semester of high school. On his way to school, Tim met beautiful, popular Vanessa and they spent time together after their flight is canceled. At school, they continued their friendship under the suspicious eye of Vanessa's volatile boyfriend. Every senior at Irving also has to write a "tragedy paper," and it seems that Tim may have left Duncan all the material he'll need for his.
My take: When I was in eighth grade, my English class was assigned A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The story, which takes place in the 1940s, focuses on two friends, one a star student and the other a star athlete. When Finn, the athlete, is badly injured in a fall, his friend Gene, feels partly responsible. As someone who'd never traveled east of the Mississippi, I was obsessed with the entire package: the New England boarding school setting, the tragedy, and the undertones of rivalry between the two friends.
Reading The Tragedy Paper, I was drawn right back to eighth grade. Like A Separate Peace, this book has a thoughtful, old-fashioned feel. I loved the way that the book portrays the boarding school setting and all its quirky traditions.
The structure of the The Tragedy Paper reminded me of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Duncan is given a stack of CDs to listen to, just as Clay is given a box of cassette tapes by Hannah Baker. I felt this narrative technique worked better in Thirteen Reasons Why, because Clay played a more integral part in Hannah's story than Duncan did in Tim's. The scenes where Duncan isn't listening to the tapes dragged a little for me.
In contrast, Tim's sections were fantastic. Tim has achromia, which means that his skin and hair have no melanin. He's supposed to avoid the sun and wear special glasses outdoors. Tim's relationship with Vanessa is one of those "regular guy infatuated with a beautiful girl" kind of things (see 2012's Burning Blue by Paul Griffin or Not Exactly A Love Story by Audrey Couloumbis) that just can't end well. And, as is often in the case in these sorts of stories, I didn't find Vanessa exactly worthy of Tim's blind adoration. She has a complete jackass of a boyfriend, whom she refuses to kick to the curb because his mother recently died. But I don't know, I'd be willing to bet that he was also a jerk before that.
There's a ton of foreshadowing in The Tragedy Paper. Not only does Tim tell Duncan that he'll give him his material for a tragedy paper, Vanessa tells Tim about a curse that's reputed to eliminate a member of the senior class each year. While I loved the suspense that this evoked, the risk with this kind of set-up is that you're waiting a long time for the payoff and, as the pages turn, your expectations rise. In this case, I wished the ending had a little more resonance and engaged my emotions more.
But all in all, The Tragedy Paper provides a lot of food for thought. It's not the typical boy-meets-girl YA contemporary. Tim is a fantastic character, and I really enjoyed his take on the world.
Interested in this book? It will be one of the offerings in my January RAK giveaway later this month!