Book Review: A Corner of White, by Jaclyn Moriarty

cover of "A Corner of White"A Corner of White is a lovely story but it took me a long time to realize how powerful it is.  I spent much of the book thinking it was sort of cute and whimsical and wouldn’t you know it, it turned out to be about powerful stuff.  This is the kind of “coming of age story” that gives “coming of age story” a good name.

This book has two protagonists who live in parallel worlds.  Elliot lives in the Kingdom of Cello.  The people of Cello are under attack periodically by Colours.  Elliot’s father disappeared a year ago, and Elliot believes that his father was taken by Purples, despite increasing evidence that his father ran away with a teacher.  Elliot wants to go search for his father, but a series of events conspires to keep him in town, and meanwhile it seems more and more likely that Elliot is going to have to face up to hard truths about his Dad.

Meanwhile in our own, modern world, fourteen-year-old Madeline is adjusting to a new life.  Madeline used to run away from home a lot.  On her final try, her mom comes with her.  Now they live in Cambridge, and Madeline’s mom seems increasingly disconnected and strange.  Madeline may seem to be the person with the common sense, but Madeline’s story of how she misses her life as a rich girl with friends and a father doesn’t make sense either.  If Madeline’s Dad is so great, why was she always running away, and why did her mom come, and why did her old friends have names like “Tinsel”?

Madeline and Elliot exchange letters through a “crack”.  They are not each other’s primary relationship, but they comment on each other’s lives in illuminating ways.  As Madeline puts it towards the end of the book:

It’s like we’re complementary colors…You know what those are, right?  Colours that make each other disappear? So, if you cross red with green – or blue with orange, or yellow with purple – you get a pale, pale color, almost white. (Issac called it a “faint, anonymous color.”)  (I’m not talking about paint here – red and green paint don’t cancel each other out, they just make mud-brown).

Interestingly, though, if you put complementary colors next to each other, they make each other shoe much more brightly, (They glow with more than their natural brilliance, is how Leonardo Da Vinci put it).

I wonder what would happen if you and I met?  Would we kill each other off, or make each other glow?  Maybe both.

The people of Cello know about The World, but the people of The World don’t know about Cello.  This creates interesting tension between Madeline and Elliot, since Elliot believes in Madeline but Madeline assumes that Elliot is creating a fantasy.  The truth, of course, is that everyone in the story is creating a fantasy of some kind.  This is a book about perception and assumption and imagination and reality.  Part of the trick of growing up for the characters (and there are many vibrant characters other than Elliot and Madeline) is that they have to release illusion and accept reality, without losing a sense of wonder and imagination.  It’s this tension that gives the book its power, and the moments in which reality shows itself are almost brutal in their emotional impact even thought they are all moments that play out quietly.

This book is the beginning of a series, and frankly I have mixed feelings about that.  I love the book, the characters, and the settings, so a sequel fills me with joy, but it doesn’t need a sequel.  It’s true that there are still mysteries in Cello (some of which seem tacked on at the last minute), but for the most part everyone learned what they needed to learn.  There was resolution.  and the resolution was hard but also healing.  This is a deeply optimistic book.

I read a lot of romance, and I love it, but I think what draws me to romance isn’t so much the focus on romantic love as the focus on relationships leading to growth.  This is not a romance but it had that quality of expressing that relationships are important, whether they are friendly, romantic, familial, or neighborly.  Elliot and Madeline have no romantic feelings for each other but they change each other’s lives in profound ways, and their lives are also affected profoundly by the other people in their lives.

Book Review: September Girls, by Bennett Madison

Cover of book, "September Girls"September Girls is a story that immerses the reader in a dream.  The narrator, a teenage boy named Sam, goes to a beach town with his father and older brother for the summer.  This town has a lot of girls, but it also has The Girls.  The Girls all work in the town, as waitresses or in the gift shops or as housekeepers in the hotels.  They are all beautiful and perfectly made-up.  They are all blond.  Sam become involved with one of the girls, Dee Dee, who turns out to be even more mysterious than girls normally are to teenage boys.

This is a story in which everything feels like a dream.  Sometimes the characters are stoned, or drunk, or both,  Sometimes they don’t know if they are dreaming or awake.  Time passes in the town, but it passes slowly, and people come and go with no set date of arrival or departure.  The narrator is crass and self-centered for much of the book, and yet the language is lyrical and lovely yet simple, especially during sections that are narrated by The Girls, like this one:

First we are alone.  First we are naked.  At first, walking is nearly impossible.  It remains difficult.  We have problems with our feet.  They are always aching.  Our shoes often have blood in them.  We are covetous of the Others’ high heels, especially the shiny, patent-leather kind.  We can only wear flats.

First we are alone.  We’re not sure how we find one another, but we do.  Then we are still alone, but in the way sardines are alone.

For much of this book I disliked the narrator and I thought he was shallow and in love with a fantasy (I was right).  But I ended up loving this book, and how as the book draws to a climax it becomes a meditation on what love is, and how we know if we are in it, and why we fall in love.  Sam’s answers might best be summed up as “I don’t know”.  But he changes a great deal during the narrative, and his feelings towards Dee Dee become less about fantasy and more about appreciating her for who she is.  It’s also a story about letting go.  I viewed the ending as a happy ending, but not everyone will.  It’s one of those bittersweet endings, but very satisfying.

September Girls has been nominated for an Andre Norton Award For Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors.  This is one of the awards given out during the Nebula Awards Ceremony.  You’ll be seeing a lot of nominees being reviewed here in the next couple of months as I’ll be attending the ceremony and I like to have read as many of the books as possible.  This book was a delight, even though it took me a while to understand why.  It’s a beautiful fairytale, and despite Dee Dee’s warnings about fairy tales, it left me feeling happy and renewed and thoughtful.