This is the second and FINAL post in my discussion with Ana for the second round of Nerds Heart YA. Check out part one of the conversation at her blog, then finish up here.
Dirty Little Secrets:
Ana: As much as I don’t want to dismiss Omololu’s portrayal of someone deeply affected by her mother’s hoarding, I have to say that the plot was REALLY hard to swallow. Not only did it feel sensational and bad-made-for-TV-movie extreme, but it also seemed to be full of HOLES. Why didn’t Lucy try to call her brother again? Why did she stay quiet when she finally managed to talk to him? Why was it so easy for her to fool her neighbors, her sister, and everyone else around her? Why did she assume that paramedics would bring TV station crews in tow? I guess the answer to that last question is “because she was so scared”, but it would have been nice if something about the story proved her wrong. Lucy’s mistrust of adults can easily be understood if we consider she has a distant, uncaring father who does little more than sign the child support checks and a mentally ill mother. But why is there no suggestion at all in her world that not all adults will exploit and sensationalize her mother’s hoarding? This ties in with the ending, so I’ll talk more about it later on, but the complete lack of reliable adults was the main reason why I found Dirty Little Secrets so disappointing.
Cass: I couldn’t believe that her AUNT, who instigated a cleaning-spree that led to a break in contact with Lucy’s immediate family, and clearly understood that Lucy’s mother had a problem that she needed help with, didn’t a) call family services or b) try to contact Lucy’s father or c) find a way to have an intervention/find a therapist for Lucy’s mother.
Ana: Another aspect of the plot I wasn’t so crazy about was the romance. Josh is basically a nonperson – a cardboard cutout of a dream guy. In addition to this, the language used to describe his and Lucy’s romantic moments really irked me. It’s all about how she feels protected and nurtured and taken care of – I haven’t even read Twilight and I kept having flashbacks of Bella. It’s difficult to explain what bothered me exactly, because I don’t want to come across as suggesting that heroines shouldn’t be allowed to be vulnerable before their love interests or rely on them for emotional support. But the really Traditional Gender Roles-infused language coupled with the fact that Lucy never seems to experience similar feelings of support or safety in close relationships with females (like with her best friend Kaylie) made me a bit suspicious
Cass: What you said.
A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend
Ana: This book has a past/present dual narrative – one dealing with Cass’s trip to California to attempt to come to terms with her best friend Julia’s death (the two had planned a trip together before Julia’s accident), and another dealing with Julia’s friend’s attempts to stage the musical she had written. I have to say that I was much more interested in the bike trip subplot than in the musical subplot. I found all the details about the logistics of a trip so long and so demanding and the physical and psychological challenge it posed really interesting (funnily enough I can’t even ride a bike – perhaps that was part of why I enjoyed the vicarious experience so much?). Also! Teen girl doing something on her own that a large percentage of people would say a girl could never do: that’s instant cool points. And like I mentioned before, I really liked the resolution of that particular subplot. But as for the musical storyline… you mentioned will grayson, will grayson in our brief e-mail exchange about the book, so I’ll just paraphrase what we have said before: this book would have felt a lot fresher if I had never read the Green/Leviathan. As it was, though, I couldn’t help but feel that I’d seen it before.
Cass: This book was basically like the now with girls! version of will grayson, will grayson.
Ana: The romance I could take or leave. Spoilers warning: I find that people-who-used-to-hate-each-other-falling-in-love type of love stories CAN work, but neither Cass and Heather’s initial antagonism nor their eventual romance felt as passionate to me as it was supposed to be. It was like… the text was trying to tell us something it wasn’t quite showing. I have no particular complaints, really, just… my thoughts on the romance echo my thoughts on the book in general, I guess. It was harmless and sweet, but not particularly memorable.
Cass: SPOILER: Okay, sorry, but you know who I would never, ever date? PEOPLE WHO WERE TERRIBLY MEAN TO ME IN HIGH SCHOOL/MIDDLE SCHOOL. No. The whole “bullier who teases the maybe-gay kid actually being gay themselves” is the most over-used story line next to to “most popular (American) football player being secretly gay.” There’s also the never-ending lesbians-in-novels trope of the comparison of kisses with boys (so hard and rough) to kisses with girls (so soft and sweet).
Ana: Argh, I feel awful that I missed the kiss comparison thing! Spoiler: about the dating a former enemy thing, when I read it I felt that I could imagine myself forgiving someone like Heather, but I’ll be the first to admit that I read the story through the privileged lens of someone who has never had a gay slur directed at them. So my experience of People Who Were Mean In School is really very different from the characters’. Like I told you above, I’m too ignorant when it comes to GLBTQ lit to have recognized the common trope, but I can definitely see how something like that being overused is problematic.
Ana: One of this book’s main themes is dealing with grief and coming to terms with the loss of someone you love, as dealt with in the trip-to-California storyline. I found Horner’s treatment of this theme moving and effective, but what stood in the way of me truly loving this book was the fact that all the other things it tried to be about just didn’t work nearly as well. Above you articulated what the problem with Cass’s “coming out” was better than I ever could have, so I’ll leave it at that. There’s also the theme of friendship and trust, I guess – but again, I would have appreciated this more if Cass’s other friends had been more developed as individuals rather than just a group.
Cass: The author tries to also bring in a minor story line about faith and sexual orientation; Cass’s friend Jon was outcast from his church when he came out, and there’s a little bit of exploration there with how he still manages to believe in God without believing in the homophobia of his church.
Ana: I also liked Jon’s story line. I only wish there had been more about him.
Ana: Everything I’d read about DLS made me believe that Omololu was going for a nuanced, respectful and human treatment of mental illness and its effects on a teen, but like we have discussed previously, that didn’t quite work out, did it? You know what, there’s no way I can share my full thoughts on this without talking about the ending, so I’ll clarify what I mean when we discuss the next point.
Cass: This is one of the worst depictions of a person with mental health issues that I have read.
- Ending (aka Spoilers Ahoy!)
Ana: The book ends with with the staging with Julia’s musical, Totally Sweet Ninja Death Squad, which… argh, it’s just too will grayson, will grayson. I kind of feel bad saying this – the two books were published the same year, so it’s really not the case that Emily Horner was ripping off John Green and David Levithan or anything like that. It’s just unfortunate for her that a high profile book that a lot of readers surely got to first came out at around the same time. And whichever book you happen to read first will inevitably feel fresh and original, while the second one… not so much. So as much as I know that this is unfair, I just couldn’t help the deja vu. I think I’d have had far more positive feelings about the ending (and possibly about the book as a whole) if the last thing in the novel had been the conclusion of the trip to California story line.
Cass: The inevitable comparisons to wg, wg, are unfortunate because I found the ending of that book to have an emotional punch, while A Love Story… just couldn’t live up to that.
Cass: Lucy comes home to find her mother is dead, and instead of calling 911 she decides to clean the house before anyone can see the state it’s in. After a few hours of this, she decides to go to a party with her crush and then spends the rest of the night hanging out with him. When she gets home, she decides cleaning is no longer an option and BURNS DOWN THE HOUSE WITH HER MOTHER IN IT. HER DEAD MOTHER. One could argue that the trauma of living with a mother who has hoarding issues and having no support system to help process this has had a great affect on Lucy (who is clearly in need of a good psychologist), but I’m sorry, I just…SHE BURNT HER MOTHER’S DEAD BODY. And this is treated as a successful way to keep the press from finding out about her mother’s problems and help Lucy become popular and have a nice boyfriend.
Ana: AGREED. I mean arson? Really?! And clearly we were not the only ones dissatisfied with the ending, because the author has written an “extra” chapter, an epilogue, that’s available as a download from her website. But since this isn’t ACTUALLY PART OF THE BOOK I don’t think we should even consider it. One of the things that bugged me about the ending (the least of them, but still) was how completely unbelievable the whole thing was. You know what, I recently read a mystery novel in which someone burns down a house with a body in it to make it look like the person died in the fire. This is a period mystery, so the police didn’t have the technology they do now at their disposal, but even THEN it takes a lot of preparation on the criminal’s part to make sure the house was properly dry and everything would burn to the ground. They knew they couldn’t possibly hope to cover their tracks otherwise. And what do we have here? A teen girl burning down a house in the middle of winter, with SNOW all around, and hoping that no one will ask too many questions. The “extra” chapter tell us that there were in fact suspicions and whispers of hoarding after the fire, but apparently no one thought to take a close look at the body or attempt to verify what her mother actually died of. Seriously?
More than the obvious plot holes, though, what bothered me was what this implies. I can understand how a first person narration from a terrified teen wouldn’t directly acknowledge that there are adults out there that can be trusted or resources at her disposal, but something somewhere in the story could have proved her wrong, no? Even if it was just a word of kindness from ONE adult character. But as that never ever happens, what we have at the end of the book is a character who remains convinced that there’s nobody she can turn to for help. The story’s implication is that the only way Lucy will ever be “normal”, the only way others will ever love her, is if she continues to hide the truth about her mother and burns down the evidence. The epilogue lessens this implication to some extent, but again: NOT REALLY PART OF THE BOOK. Sadly, the whole “your mom was a freak, and if only people knew they’d think YOU are a freak too” vibe is only reinforced by how things turn out.
Cass: Exactly. The short version of my thoughts: Moms are a big deal and this book treats them terribly and it is not okay.
While A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend was by no means perfect, compared to Dirty Little Secrets it’s a clear winner.