Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Consolation of Reading

The last two days haven't been stellar (though I did get an offer to speak at an AAUW luncheon), but today, when I got home from a disappointing class, I knew I had a good book to finish reading. I just sat down with A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb and read until I was done.

A Certain Slant of Light is the story of Helen, a woman in her twenties, who has been dead for over a hundred years. Though she can't recall much about her life, she knows she did something horrible.

To get away from her suffering in the afterlife, she clings to human hosts to whom she also becomes emotionally attached. She must follow them wherever they go or she'll descend back into what to her is a dark, cold hell. Though they are totally unaware of her existence, she reads over their shoulders, learns through them about life in the generations after hers is over, and hopes she can follow them into heaven when they die.

Clearly that never happens, because she's on, I believe, her fifth host, a high school teacher, when our story begins. One day she's in his classroom with him when she realizes that a boy can see her. This boy's body, it turns out, was near death when it was inhabited by a spirit like herself. Soon Helen is inhabiting the body of a teenage girl who was spiritually near death.

And so begins their intense love story as these two out-of-place souls try to deal with the families of the bodies they now are living in and the guilt they are carrying with them regarding the lives they lived before but can't quite remember.

If a writer is really good, I've realized this past year, she can compensate for slip-ups in her story. I never quite understood how James came to inhabit his body in the first place. Why weren't most of the humans in the story inhabited by the spirits of the dead? And there's some kind of evil thing that tries to take possession of bodies that I never understood, either.

But it just didn't matter. Whitcomb is able to write emotion so well that every character in the book is real. Even the fundamentalist family is saved from being a stereotype by the pain and suffering the mother experiences.

Nothing is wasted in this book. If a character is introduced, he or she has an important part to play at some point in the story.

I do wonder why the book is being marketed as YA, though. The main characters are the adult spirits in the book, not the teenage bodies they inhabit. And the guilt that has kept Helen in hell all these years involves the fear of an adult woman, not a teenage girl.

I tend to be a little jaded, of course, so I wonder if the decision to market the book as YA wasn't made because the two teenage bodies engage in a lot of sex, some of the best sex I've ever seen in a YA book. Teens like sex? Adults won't be interested in sex if the bodies involved are teenagers?

This is a great book. It should definitely become a crossover for any age group.

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