Friday, January 20, 2006

A great young-adult novel

about the ridiculous painfulness of love at age fifteen and various other things: Empress of the World by Sara Ryan. I've been hearing good things about this book for a while now, had it in the Amazon shopping cart but was preempted by Sara herself kindly sending me a copy. And it's excellent, very serious and sweet and rather touching. The voice of the (female) narrator Nic is very well done, plus the extra painfulness of the story being her girlfriend dumping her for a boy she doesn't even really like.

Passage I most identified with:

"You know what I think about religion?" I ask. Not waiting for an answer, I say, "I think it would be great if it was all clear-cut the way it is in Madeleine L'Engle books. Where you know who the bad guys are and it's all important and beautiful and it means that you can communicate telepathically with dolphins."

Isn't that great? That's a reference to a MUCH-loved childhood book of mine, A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle, which I see was originally published in May 1980, which sounds just about right--I think it actually may have been the first novel I ever bought in hardcover, I saw it in the window of a local bookstore and just HAD TO HAVE IT; almost everything I read came from the library, it was a frugal upbringing, so this stands out, and that I addictively read it immediately and many times.

Other favorite exchange:

"Why are you laughing?"

I wheeze a few times and manage eventually to get enough breath to say, "Us. We're acting like teenagers, you know." My voice is shaky. At a certain point, it really is hard to tell the difference between laughing and crying.

"We ARE teenagers," Battle reminds me.

"I know. But this is so dumb."

It was actually almost painful reading the novel, it so acutely reminded me of the summer I spent at age 15-turning-16 at a Telluride Association Summer Program at Williams in 1987. Where I did indeed meet the great love of my life--I chose what college to attend because it was the one he was going to--and then of course the week after I decided we broke up, and so it goes. And he was murdered in 1998, how melancholy to think of it all....

I guess if I have a criticism of the book it's that the kids do seem a bit young, my memory of being that age is that you're MADDENINGLY convinced (in retrospect, wrongly, but whatever) that you are completely a grown-up and that things are direly wrong and importantly bad and so forth and it is all far more melodramatic than Ryan's rather calm narrator is willing to indulge herself in. I don't know what it is about age fifteen--that's the age of the main character of my new novel, though it's definitely not young-adult fiction, it's written mainly for grownups--but something about it sticks with you, not in a good way. Ryan is gentle with her characters, though; it's reassuring & should persuade us all not to be too critical of our younger selves. After all, it is one of the great consolations in life to be no longer fifteen (foolish and generally extreme behavior continues till all ages, of course, but hopefully not in such high proportions & intensity).


  1. Jenny:

    I am new to blogging, having sought it out as a way to promote my own writing, much of which could likely fit into the so-called Young Adult niche. Although it seems you were already professionally established academically and published pre-blogging, have you found it to be a successful route towards achieving a wider audience of your work? Are you also finding it helpful as you compose drafts of your newest novel? I am presently pondering over what the subject matter of my own blog will be. As the possibilities are ridiculously endless, so are my ideas. I have gone from considering a mere feminist film criticism blog to one where I present weekly developments of a storyline…..We shall see.

    I was drawn to your blog through your comments on "Empress of the World," as well as your musings over the experience of mid-teenhood, a topic and age which much of my own work usually finds itself. I read your most recent revision of "Dynamite No. 1"’s sixth chapter, and I really enjoyed the tangibility and independence of Sophie’s character. This paragraph came right off the page for me:

    "After a while, Sophie could read no more. It was hard enough deciding what to do when you left school in any case. But how could you work out who you really were and what you wanted to do when the world itself threatened to be a quite different place by the time you grew up?"

    You really hold the crux of adolescent experience in that concept!

    Even now, in my mid-thirties, the tumult of my own teenhood is still quite alive; hence fertile ground for the writ!


  2. Hi, Alissa!

    In my opinion people in the world can be divided into ones who are still internally fifteen years old & ones who are not; I am clearly in the first camp....

    I thought my blog would be more writing-oriented than it turned out to be; it's really much more like a writer-as-reader kind of thing, obviously. I really, really like blogging, but I'm not so sure about its immediate utility. It's been good for me to work out a voice I can write in for essays and blog posts that's related to but still distinct from my other writing voices (academic, teaching, fiction-writing). I actually quickly realized that it's pretty useless for keeping pace with work on a project--I don't believe in complaining in public (does this sound ridiculously stoical?), and there is also lots of the "don't-jinx-it" type impulse, and between not wanting to complain when you're having a fit of anxiety & not wanting to blow a potentially good idea by exposing it before it's ready (not to mention not gloating too publicly when you get a lot done that week) I think it's not so useful! However once I have a contract for the new book & am inching towards publication date, I expect it will be more useful. Certainly I enjoy reading a fair number of author blogs & I think it's good if people who come across your novel in print can actually find something fun & engaging & dynamic as opposed to the static thing of a website, which is a lot more bother to keep properly updated. I mean, it's important for authors to have websites too (I'm waiting to get one till I know what's happening with the next book), but the blog is always more fun to read & I think easier for authors to keep current in any case.

    So that's a long answer to your question! I think it's best just to get started & see how it goes, rather than deciding programmatically in advance--you can then build up a readership gradually as you get more comfortable with it. What I really enjoy here is how often a commenter says "OK, you've convinced me, I've just bought the book" when I've raved about something I love. I hope I will not sound cynical when I say that I doubt the blog has caused anybody to go out and buy a copy of my first novel!