Sunday, January 16, 2011

Review: Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me

I feel like I’ve been on a journey with this slim little novel, and it wasn’t an entirely metaphorical one. You see, I began by devouring When You Reach Me wholly in transit. (I was lucky enough to glimpse a bird’s eye view of Miranda’s neighborhood from my window seat.) Then I started writing its review from a café in Brooklyn around New Year’s. (It seemed appropriate to write in that spot, so close to Manhattan. The city was such a vital part of the story, a background character looming large in the lives of the “latchkey kids” who called it home.) Unfortunately, I didn’t finish this post at the coffee shop. There’s a lot to tackle, as the book does so much in just 200 pages. (It was the final book I read last year, and it made my Top 10 of 2010.)

When You Reach Me certainly stands out for its length, a standalone story in a sea of sprawling series. Still, the plot is just as rich as a book three times its size, and its brevity means there is not a wasted word or sentence. Tight as it is, the writing breathes, resisting the urge to surge helter-skelter to the end (though I did and immediately wanted to reread it). I couldn’t ask for more from the setting. Its world of 1979 feels distinctly period and timeless at the same time. As for the genre, I struggled with categorizing it. It is a mystery story (with big ideas), but at its heart, it’s a character study. (Mild spoilers beyond this point.)

A lot of my affection has to do with Miranda. Young narrators are difficult to pull off authentically, but Stead really captures the concerns of an adolescent who sees/understands a whole lot but doesn’t quite put everything together. (Miranda can see class differences but not the reason why her best guy friend is pulling away. We can’t either, given the limited information through Miranda, because it’s not any reason we/she would expect. That, of course, is a conscientious reader’s delight.) Through Miranda, we see the delicate dance of adolescent friendship and parent-child relationships. There are a lot of bedrooms and interiors, as the story inhabits the preteen microcosm. We also get a lot of food—Oreos, pizza, sandwiches, lemonade—because that’s what kids do together. Still, the rooms and the food have a secondary purpose in highlighting differences and reflecting worries. The kids feel like kids and the issues are issues, but they play out naturally. The children stretch beyond their problems and yet the problems fit comfortably, as if they’ve been living with them for years.

The view into each child’s world is done with such a light touch, but underneath it, Stead is fearless. She tackles things like racism, epilepsy, single/working parenthood, and poverty in a very true, real way. Nothing feels out of place or preachy. I loved the interactions with the dentist, who could have been a one-off character with a “message” in a lower-quality story. That he feels real and comes back later in the non-superfluous way makes me overflow with joy. That is how you write!

Stead’s compassion extends to all of the adult characters, round people who could have easily been types. The frazzled working mom, her new boyfriend, the gruff restaurant owner, and the neighborhood matron could have devolved into cutouts, but they have real fears and flaws. Stead handles significant details in a brilliant fashion, like the boyfriend’s sailor knots and his key situation, but she can also drop in tidbits without them seeming out of place, like the German translation of “latchkey kids.” (Schlüsselkinder, for those wondering. What a great word!) Details like these bind a book together, and when used correctly, the payoff feels so earned.

Speaking of payoff, the central mystery is phenomenal. Stead manages to integrate a science fiction element into a realistic story and have it not be far-fetched. Meg Murray’s adventures unobtrusively bolster the story, allowing for a peek into a world different from Miranda’s and opening a window in return. (It should be said that I'm a huge Madeline L’Engle fan, but you don’t have to be to love this twist.)

The resolution is one of the most surprising and refreshing things I’ve read recently, maybe ever. It’s the kind of ending that imbues dignity, radiates understanding, and makes the world more magical. I keep returning to C.S. Lewis’ “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” but it’s perfect. “He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

I know I’ve been more vague with this review than I have been with some others, but I don’t even want my spoilers to spoil this book. Though I could gush on about the framing game show device or the playing with Shakespeare or the language, it’s not really about that. It’s not even about “the plot.” Don’t get me wrong, there are big suspenseful moments in this unassuming book. They’re just not the point.

I think what I’m trying to get at is this: In Miranda’s life, nothing radical has changed and yet everything has. That, to me, is the best encapsulation of growing up I can imagine: a series of steps that lead to others, learning about friends, falling back on family, some pain, a little magic, and a lot of discovery.

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