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March 9, 2010

Books in the City

Because I only ever read YA for purposes of nostalgia, I’ve probably not read a novel for young readers that’s been published since the early 1990s. I decided to read Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me after reading this piece on it at the Guardian Books Blog, and because it had won the estimable seal of the Newbery Medal. And yes, also because it’s the story of girl who’s reading A Wrinkle In Time.

I’d forgotten how wonderful YA fiction can be– there was nothing simple about Stead’s plot, and though the vocabulary was simpler than I was used to, and the font was bigger, she had me wrapped up in the story and completely baffled as to where it would go next. She wasn’t writing down to anyone.

When You Reach Me turned out to be a nostalgic read all the same, however. Perhaps in itself an ode to the great YA fiction of yore (whose heroines I’ve written about before, actually, on International Women’s Day exactly two years ago). The story takes place in 1979, which means its protagonist needs dimes for the payphone. And all the best YA took place in the ’70s, didn’t it? Which was sometimes weird, especially when girls needed belts for their sanitary napkins, or lost their virginity on unfortunate shag rugs, but there was something in the air then that leaked into these wonderful stories.

Stead’s Miranda is blunt, feisty, awkward, mortified by her mother (“…if she had the slightest idea what she looked like, she wouldn’t be laughing at all.”), gutsy, fearful and vividly drawn. The story was not at all dated (which makes it a bit different from the YA I remember so well– no one refers to anybody as a “woman’s libber”, for example). That Miranda lives in New York City too is only fitting, because everybody did then. With their unabashedly single mothers, in buildings without doormen, and they’d walk around the city with keys strung around their necks. It’s strange how much encountering adolescence in 1970s’ New York City is really a kind of literary homecoming for me.

Another book in the city I’ve read lately is Stacey May Fowles’ Fear of Fighting (which is a Canada Also Reads contender, and [insert “wow, do I ever love the internet!” comment here] available as a free download. Defender Zoe Whittall holds this book up as an example of an urban book set in the present day, the kind of book that cranky people like to complain doesn’t exist, and that many readers too fond of inter-generational prairie family sagas could end up ignoring.

I read Fear of Fighting skeptically, first, because I’m unconvinced that “contemporary urban tale” is necessarily shorthand for good. It’s very often been shorthand for complete crap, in my experience, with storytellers too conscious of what they’re up to, in Toronto referencing Parkdale for the sake of referencing Parkdale (and either not explaining what this means, or explaining too much), getting novel-writing confused with map-drawing, thinking they’re not required to actually do anything as storytellers because this is a “contemporary urban tale” after all.

I also wonder about this demand for contemporary urban tales– is this another way of asking for books about people like us? And I understand why a wide of variety of approaches to fiction is important, but I also know that when girls who collect shoes and go shopping a lot demand fiction that reflects their lives, the rest of us find that a bit disdainful.

Finally (and then I promise, I’ll stop with the provisos), unlike Whittall, I don’t necessarily love “good non-cliché-ridden mental illness narrative” (or perhaps I’ve just never encountered the first two descriptors).

When I started Fear of Fighting, I thought it had a YA sensibility, but having read When You Reach Me now, I realize that I was only recognizing another irrepressible narrative voice. Who doesn’t write down to anyone. Fowles’ work is so wonderful because it doesn’t try too hard, because her narrator is wry and discerning. After Marnie gets her heart broken, she eventually she stops leaving her house, even adandoning her lucrative career filing for a document shredding company. The book is the story of her piecing together what’s happened, and what she’s going to do next, and Zoe Whittall is right– the book is funny. “Fucking hilarious” may be taking it a bit far, but it’s true that Fowles’ Marnie is the most hilarious agoraphobe I’ve ever encountered in fiction, or anywhere.

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