Monday, May 09, 2005

Irony All Over the Place

So, I'm having this big, analytical experience reading Welcome to Lizard Motel, which is all about the author's responses to "problem books"--angst- ridden stories involving grim problems that a young protagonist must over come. Or not. And what should I stumble upon while I'm reading that but How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

How I Live Now begins with a stereotypical problem novel protagonist. Daisy is anorexic, her mother died when she was born, she's hostile toward her father and stepmother, she's put in her share of time with psychiatrists, and she tells her story in the first person. Sounds like everything I dislike, right? But very early on in the book, Rosoff sends Daisy off to visit relatives in England, thus placing this stereotypical problem teen in an eccentric English children's story. And then, on page 24, Rosoff sends all these kids off into a war story by having London attacked by unnamed forces. There's even a little dystopian thing going on.

This is a book in which the author pays as much attention to the story and characters as she does to the problems she saddles them with. That is the difference between a good problem book and a bad one.

And Daisy, Rosoff's main character, has a wonderful, wonderful voice. She's a marvelous character, a teen with some mental health issues who is forced to become the sane one. I believe I've said it before--one really fantastic character can make a book.

I wasn't crazy about the ending, but even that was a nod to what I think is the most famous dystopian novel of the late 20th Century, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. (I wasn't crazy about how that book ended, either.) And I feel obligated to point out that there is a sexual situation that some readers might find...hmmm...creepy? disturbing? distasteful? It's not that large a part of the story, but I thought I should mention it.

So, I was finding that kind of ironic, loving a problem book while I was reading Lizard Motel. The other ironic feeling I've been getting lately is that I find Lizard Motel, well, sort of like a problem book. There's the heavy tone to the writing, the "something very, very serious is happening here" that often accompanies problem books. Then Feinberg tells us that her parents divorced, she was thrown out of school, and she ran away from home, herself, when she was a teenager. She tells a story about a child who became mute after being traumatized by a surgery she had to endure. She also describes how, when she was a daycare teacher, she decided to explain to her charges what a hostage is. (She wishes someone had stopped her. I bet some of those kids do, too.) It seemed as if the kinds of "problems" that might appear in a problem novel, kept coming up in her narrative.

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