Welcome to Compare and Contrast, a periodic blog feature in which I jointly review two books that share a similar element. Today's books feature characters whose boyfriends have tragically died -- and who have been sent to rusticate in the outdoors. What interested me most about comparing these two books is that, despite this common thread, they were not the slightest bit similar. One is a down-to-earth contemporary, the other more measured, with elements of magical realism. Both were good, each was completely different.
by Fiona Wood
Published in the U.S. on September 16, 2014
by Little, Brown
Source: e-ARC via NetGalley
Synopsis from Goodreads: During a semester in the wilderness, sixteen-year-old Sib expects the tough outdoor education program and the horrors of dorm life, but friendship drama and an unexpected romance with popular Ben Capaldi? That will take some navigating. New girl Lou has zero interest in fitting in, or joining in. Still reeling from a loss that occurred almost a year ago, she just wants to be left alone. But as she witnesses a betrayal unfolding around Sib and her best friend Holly, Lou can't help but be drawn back into the land of the living.My take: First off, Australian readers have already had the pleasure of discovering both Wildlife and its 2010 companion book, Six Impossible Things. That's lucky for them, because I had to wait until now to discover Fiona Wood, a talented new Aussie author.
As always, I read the synopsis weeks before starting the actual book, and it took me a while to realize that this book did not feature an unreliable narrator, but was in fact told from the point of view of two different girls. (Dumb, right? But in my defense, the chapters in the e-ARC aren't headed with the girls' names or anything. However, I finally figured out that the chapters with the dates are journal entries written by Lou. Problem solved.)
Wildlife is a brash, funny, earthy book that, to me, really reflected the way the teenage years feel: exhilarating, confusing, mortifying, painful. Sibylla is unsure of herself, and allows herself to be guided by the sometimes dubious wisdom of her best friend, Holly. Lou, who's attending the same outdoor eduction program, is prickly and standoffish, still mourning the loss of her boyfriend in an accident (this isn't revealed in the synopsis but it is revealed in the beginning of the book.) The way the two girls' stories intertwined felt both artful and natural.
Wildlife touches on so many teen issues: first love, sex, friends and frenemies, feeling lost and beginning to find yourself. If you love contemporary YA, Wildlife is a must-read.
by Meg Wolitzer
To be published by Dutton
on September 30, 2014
Source: ARC sent from publisher for review
Synopsis: If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be at home in New Jersey with her sweet British boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing him in the library stacks. She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English. But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead. Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.My take: Belzhar would have been exactly the kind of story I'd have adored as a teenager. It has so many elements of my favorite books. First, it's a boarding school story, and I love those. The story features a life-changing (and somewhat mysterious) teacher, and who doesn't wish for those? The life-changing teacher has the students in her class read Sylvia Plath's Bell Jar, a book about a gifted, troubled young woman. Even the magical realism -- something I'm not always wholeheartedly a fan of -- worked for me in this book.
What didn't entirely work for me was (click for BIG spoiler)
the twist at the end, which reveals that Jam's boyfriend Reeve isn't dead at all. And that Reeve was never her boyfriend. And that she imagined or hallucinated the whole dead boyfriend thing. I was fine with the twist -- I actually thought the twist would be that Reeve didn't exist at all -- but I felt that the issues and problems faced by the kids in the Special Topics class varied to an extent that felt out of balance. Casey and Sierra had such heart-wrenchingly tragic stories that what happened to the other students almost seemed trivial to me in comparison. Then, when I discovered that Jam had made the dead boyfriend thing up, she came off to me as petty and childish. And then I felt guilty for being annoyed by her, because she must be mentally ill, and, if so, her delusions are not her fault. Still, the book's juxtapostion of characters who had suffered horrible tragedies with those that had just gone through things (discovering a parent's adultery, for instance) that were unfortunate and sad, but hardly on the same scale, and then one character who imagined her whole tragedy, made things feel out of balance to me. I think the book might have worked better for me if this had been more of a Girl, Interrupted story in which ALL the characters were being treated at a psychiatric facility. But curious to hear what others think.
Still, I do recommend this one if you are a fan of classic YA like A Separate Peace, as I think that Belzhar has that same sort of timeless, poignant feel.