Saturday, July 30, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'So Much Closer'

** This review will contain minor spoilers. **

The Book:
So Much Closer

The Author:
Susane Colasanti

How I Found It: I read another of Colasanti's novels last year. When I heard about this one coming out, the premise sounded interesting enough that I put it on my list. Thanks to my local library!

The Review: Brooke Greene knows that Scott Abrams is the love of her life. She has what she calls the Knowing, absolute convictions about her future liable to come over her on the cusp of life-changing moments. At the end of their junior year of high school, she's finally worked up the courage to tell him she thinks they're meant to be together... only for him to tell her he's moving to New York City before she can say much of anything.

Brooke has been slacking academically for quite some time, not feeling challenged enough by her high school's curriculum. So when she lies to her mother and says she wants to move to New York for a better education, she's telling the truth. Partly. Following Scott and spending her senior year in NYC might be her last chance to be with him, and she'll go even if it means having to live with her estranged father.

Brooke soon realizes that New York might not be everything she thought it was. Her classes are more challenging, which may or may not be a good thing. Her friends at home aren't as supportive of her decision as she thought. Her father isn't around like he said he'd be. Worst of all, it looks like Scott is taken. Brooke might have changed her entire life around because of a boy, but as she struggles to make Scott realize that they're meant to be together, she realizes that the person who really matters is herself.

I was in the middle of the road on Something Like Fate, the other novel of Colasanti's I read, and when I decide to give a middling author another try, I usually hope for something better. I'm sad to say that I felt pretty much the same about So Much Closer--that there were some things I really liked and some things I really didn't. The more I think about it, I think the bad outweighed the good for me. I might give Colasanti one more shot--some of her premises sound interesting, I have to say--but I'm not sure if she's the author for me. I might just end up sticking with Sarah Dessen.

To start with, Colasanti improved on something I wasn't too keen on when I read Something Like Fate. She still used teenage colloquialisms in the characters' speech, which is great, but cut down on them in the narration. There's still the occasional "and she was like," "and he goes," etc., instead of "and he said" or similar conventions, but it's not nearly as grating as it was in Fate. One professional review I saw of a Colasanti novel said that usages like the above mark the demise of modern literature, but I disagree. As an English major, I'm highly critical of the use of colloquialisms, but Colasanti has no great pretensions towards literature here; she's merely trying to speak to teens today. I'm barely out of my teens and, yes, in informal settings, among my friends, I'm liable to speak in just the way the story is narrated. If I'm remembering right, Colasanti was once a high school teacher, and it does show--she captures current teenage speech patterns perfectly.

I think, however, that Colasanti being a teacher ended up doing this novel a disservice. I was more than a bit blindsided by what seemed like public education reform politics that snuck in halfway through the book. The reason for Brooke's lack of motivation is revealed to be the result of her beyond genius IQ, which makes it hard for her to feel challenged in school, and which has resulted in her less-than-stellar grades. When a teacher confronts her about the problem, Brooke gives this speech: "Schools teach to the test and then they make these sweeping judgments about students based on their answers to a few pointless questions... They're doing it wrong. How is force-feeding us stuff we don't care about making us smarter? And why should I be forced to become part of something I don't believe in?" (112)

There's more to the speech, but when I read that, it was a ... what? moment for me. To be quite honest, I picked a YA book to read because it was something fluffy, not to suddenly be confronted with a vaguely political rant. And even if Brooke is a genius, I wasn't quite sure the speech rang true to the concerns of today's teens. I saw some truth in it, but I don't know if the younger readers Colasanti is presumably courting are going to care. Brooke was so arrogant about her superiority to the system that I really didn't, to be honest. I agreed more with the speech her friend made a few pages later: "You want to hear something simple? You could have had straight As with like no effort. You could have been valedictorian. But you threw it all away, and for what? To make some kind of political statement no one's listening to? To prove some point no one's benefiting from? Wake up, Brooke. No one cares." (117)

It's definitely harsh, but in the end, no one really does seem to care. Brooke's thinking outside the box helps when she peer tutors a fellow student, John, who's dysgraphic, but it doesn't seem to figure much else in the long run. Even the passion she ultimately decides on pursuing has nothing to do with educational reform. That speech seemed incredibly jarring and too close to a soapbox moment for me to feel comfortable with it, and it definitely threw me out of the book.

The teen characters were believable, even if I did have difficulty sympathizing with Brooke, who just came off like she was throwing her life away. I could believe that a teenager would be impulsive enough to, given the opportunity, move to another state just for a boy (hey, if it worked on Felicity, why not here?). Scott, though, didn't have much depth besides one solitary family issue, which did seem to be the point in the end. I was much more intrigued by Brooke's new friends, Sadie and John. Sadie was funny and sweet, a good counterpoint to Brooke's friends back home. John in particular was well-done, I felt, because he reminded me very much of one of my guy friends in high school. If I can look at a character and pinpoint someone like that I've seen in real life, I count them as a success.

The pacing felt off towards the end; I think certain conclusions were rushed for the sake of the word count Colasanti probably had to work within. I kept looking at the book going, "... but there are only thirty pages left? There's so much to resolve still!" And therein lies the rub. You see, Brooke says at one point that she doesn't like novels where all the loose ends are tied up with a bow. And... they were here, sorry to say. The easiest possible resolution seems tacked on just to wrap up the storyline. Brooke's mom apologizes for making her feel devalued. Brooke's dad lays down the ground rules they'd been lacking. The romantic relationships work out as well as they could have given the revelations in the text. Brooke's old friends drift away (and that's it) and her new ones will presumably be in her life for as long as she's in New York. Really? It's all just a bit too perfect, especially for the life of a high school senior. I was only there two years ago--I know.

The novel's drawbacks (a strong anti-public education bent, a verging-on-unlikable protagonist) outweighed the novel's strengths (believable diction and some interesting characters) by a fair amount. I might recommend it to teens who, like Brooke, feel directionless, but even that's with reservations. If you're a die-hard fan of Colasanti's, or want something featuring characters a bit older than her other novels, go for it. If not, I think this one's a skip.

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