Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Review: John M. Cusick's Girl Parts

I finished this book over a month ago. The only other review that took this long to get out of my head and onto the blog was Rebecca Stead’s superb When You Reach Me. I praised Stead’s characterization, voice, attention, empathy, and concept, but it still wasn’t enough. I fear I will also fall short reviewing Girl Parts, but I’m going to have to try. It would be a crime not to tell people about this book.

I’ve never done this before in this space, but I can’t think of any other way to explain the brilliance of the writing. Get thee to and check out the “Search inside this book” feature. (The excerpt is only 9 pages long, and it’s great.) You have to read it! Be engulfed! I’ll wait.

…Oh, you’re back? Good. As you read in his bravura opening chapter, Cusick carves out his characters with a scalpel. He pins down Charlie and David in a few paragraphs, and he captures Charlie’s dad Thaddeus in two sentences:

“Like Charlie, Thaddeus was tall. He had a long beard and bushy eyebrows that reminded people of the kitschy wax candles carved to look like tree spirits.”

I understood these people as types immediately, but they didn’t feel flat. Quite the opposite, actually. Each person was built up layer by layer from a recognizable baseline, which is the crucial difference between an archetype and a character. Charlie may seem like a typical oblivious loser-loner, but the scene in which he realizes the depth of his unhappiness by making a list is heartbreaking. (Here, I want to make special notice of May, a feminist pot-smoking lesbian renegade scientist who is more than the sum of her parts and absolutely delightful.)

Cusick has a deep affection for his characters even as he’s eviscerating them. They are foolish and make fools of themselves, but it’s very human and equal-opportunity. In a similar vein, he treats his male and female characters with the same respect. They are all worthy of having interior lives, and they do. I had the breath knocked out of me by this paragraph from chapter two:

“There was a lot Charlie didn’t know about Rebecca. Her confidence was showy. She felt fat and repulsive because boys her age never talked to her. Only grown man seemed to like her. They shouted at her from their cars, which made her feel like a freak. Last year her history teacher grabbed her chest while driving home from Model UN, a secret that constricted like a noose around her throat whenever she thought about it.”

There, that is the perfect encapsulation of what it feels like to have a large chest in high school. At the same time, look at that adjective! She’s a theater kid, and her confidence is “showy.” It’s all in the details. An analog clock that goes “teck.” A crossword clue that seems trivial but isn’t. Some things are obvious, some things are subtle, but everything has been deliberately placed. Considering I’m pretty vigilant about names in books (Nuvola=Italian for “cloud,” Coleo Foridae=Coleophoridae family, Sakora Solutions=Japanese sakura or “cherry blossom”), I couldn’t help but smile when I realized the botanist’s son was in love with a Rose.

This thoughtfulness permeates the book, but it’s not ostentatious. I’m normally distracted when characters make references to songs that exist in “our” world, but Cusick elegantly provides only a snippet. (“The way you, hmm hmm…” May sang along, quietly, her eyes turning to her magazine. “…buh buh sip your tea…”) It didn’t detract from my reading experience, because it sounded familiar without pressing me to place it. (When I got curious about the lyrics later and looked them up, the inclusion served the story seamlessly.) There’s a real art to making references echo without naming them outright. I mean, if this wasn’t inspired a bit by The Princess Bride, I’ll eat my hat:

“In a lifetime of kisses, some must be better than others, and the odds are low—for any of us—that the first will be the best. But few have had a better first kiss than Charlie Nuvola.”

I also loved how the school musical is My Fair Lady, a production based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. That play, in turn, refers to the Greek myth in which a sculptor falls in love with his statue. What a perfect series of works to set beside an android who is learning to become human. Watching Rose’s burgeoning consciousness, especially looking on as her artificial intelligence learns metaphors and similes, is riveting. I don’t want to reveal all of the other moments that turned my insides to jelly, but Cusick is the king of the meaningful recall. He just slays me with his descriptions:

“Her emotional center was destabilized, joy one moment, despair the next, cut off, no sense of what to do, what anything meant, or even who she was. Her body was desperate for touch, yet repelled. She was hot and cold, exhausted but restless.
In other words, heartbroken.”

He can do lyrical, but Cusick can also do playful. “Charlie stood like a sequoia in a thicket of elms.” That one sentence tells me succinctly how Charlie relates to the world, both as a botanist’s son and a teenage boy, and another few show me how he sees it: “A trio of girls breezed in. (Breeze, Charlie thought. Wasn’t that how beautiful girls got everywhere? On tinkling little zephyrs.)”

Did I mention his wicked sense of humor? Cusick certainly knows how to set up a joke, stringing together more giggle-inducing instances in ten pages than other books have in their full page count. The milk incident, the discussion of “fewer boobs” and “less ass,” and the IM chat about internet dragonback sex had me in stitches. Then, he tops it. The date between Charlie and Rebecca in the second chapter was the best thing I have read this year. I do not say this lightly. It was side-splitting physical comedy in a book! Smaller exchanges also had their charms. I howled when David’s mother couldn’t figure out how to work a conference call, a well-worn situation Cusick elevates with excellent comedic timing.

Though there are scores of notable themes and ideas and turns of phrase in this book (more than I can fit here), I was most attracted to how skillfully Cusick manipulates humor and emotion. They interrupt each other regularly, but the breaks enhance rather than undercut. (That piece of the prologue when a bird flies into a window and dies without the girl inside noticing? I laughed. It was unexpected. Then, it’s made clear the girl is going to kill herself. Cue mood switch.) The lived moments, the chance connections combined with bittersweet brutality, sure felt like high school to me. This is YA at its best.

I’m afraid this was more of a gushing lovefest than a review. Quick, think of something negative! If I had to nitpick, I’d say Cusick has a pigeon problem. I say this because I was so taken with the phrase “boys in pigeon-gray jackets” (48) that I noticed when the color was repeated as “pigeon-gray t-shirts” (195). The same imagery is used a third time, when a “red-tipped flutter” is placed among a flock of pigeons (213), and the metaphor felt a little heavy-handed. But honestly, who the heck cares? This book is fantastic. (I’m going out to purchase a copy for myself so I can use it as a textbook.) Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I must have this, it sounds amazing.
    Your review most certainly did it justice.