These are two very different books about teenaginess. Teenagedom. TEEN LIFE.
God, I remember how much I hated being called a teen. I remember taking a resort vacation with my family and my older siblings were like, “Don’t you want to check out the teen activities?” Then they snickered while I stormed off with my copy of Dubliners and my full array of head gear.
Anyway! Now that I’m well past that point in my life, it turns out I can read books about teenageness without feeling any empathy or even a twinge of discomfort. Except that that is a filthy lie. After reading these, I am awash in adolescent memories, and I think I’m breaking out again. Or maybe that’s perimenopause. I hear that’s a thing. At least now I don’t have the headgear? (I think I need a retainer, frankly, but on the other hand fuck that. Being an adult means you can curse all you like. Someone bring me a fucking cocktail.)
So the books I am gently suggesting to you, they are very different and I think their weaknesses and strengths complement each other delightfully. Let us discuss!
First, there’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. You may have heard of this one. It’s all the rage. The movie is coming out soon. So many people recommended it to me that I ended up avoiding it, because I am just that contrary. But finally I gave in to peer pressure, and I’m glad I did. (Kids: your friends are not always wrong!) TFIOS (as the insiders call it) is funny, compelling, and wrenchingly sad. I can’t emphasize that last part enough. I knew going in that it would be sad. I was like, yeah, sure, teens with cancer. Bet it’ll have some dark humor. What I didn’t expect was that I would wake up the day after finishing it sore from crying so much. TFIOS is its own workout. If your eyes aren’t normally puffy enough, read this book. Problem solved.
Reading it as a grownup renders the reading experience extra-hard, I think, because you feel not only for the teenagers but also for their parents. Without spoiling too much, you can probably guess that the families here get put through the wringer. I’m not saying that teenagers wouldn’t feel sad for all involved parties, but I can’t imagine Teen Me would have related quite as strongly to the adults. So: read TFIOS, but be prepared. Be prepared for your spouse to come to bed only to find you weeping violently and then he’ll get angry at the author for making you cry like that and you’ll yell at him to leave you alone because you still have a chapter left. Buy extra tissues.
For me, the weakness of TFIOS was that I didn’t quite believe these teenagers were… teenagers. They recite poetry to each other. They think things through. They are far more sophisticated and witty than I ever was. I mean, maybe I was kind of a dope. I can fully get behind this idea. But you know how even the wittiest, smartest teenagers are super-duper lacking in good judgment and will do things so profoundly stupid you can’t believe it’s the same person? That kind of thing never happens, here. On the other hand these are teens with cancer and maybe they’ve had to grow up fast. That’s a possibility. I just think that the version of teenagers John Green shows here is…aspirational, shall we say. Maybe teenagers need that. “Look how witty I could be,” they might say. “Time to memorize some poetry.”
On to the next book!
Jo Ann Beard’s IN ZANESVILLE is a great contrast to TFIOS. I was crazy about Jo Ann Beard’s collection of essays Boys of My Youth (check out that title essay—talk about wrenching) and I was recommending it to a student when I accidentally discovered that she had since written this novel. It’s a crime that more people don’t know about this book. It's a crime that I didn't know about this book.
IZ (yeah, I'm abbreviating it) is about two best friends trying to find their way into adulthood, getting into trouble, falling out of friendship and back in, and it reads like maybe the author read my diary. I loved, loved, loved it. The deep affection I felt for the angsty teens here was something I missed in TFIOS. These are the kinds of girls I remember being. Well-meaning. Flailing. Anxious. Thoughtless. Dopey.
Here’s the first paragraph, which may be my favorite first paragraph ever:
“We can’t believe the house is on fire. It’s so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we’re supposed to be in charge here, so there’s a sense of somebody not doing their job.”
Is that not brilliant? Can't you immediately picture these two goofy fourteen-year-olds, making an utter mess of things, trying to abdicate responsibility for the fire while it is occurring? And it only gets better. The entire book is a harrowing and hilarious in just that way. I believed that these kids existed. I worried about them.
I do have one problem with IZ, but it’s kind of a book spoiler. I’ll just say I didn’t think the book quite realized its potential. I think you can have a literary work that also has an exciting plot, and this novel frustrated me a little in that way. IZ is wonderfully evocative in a way that TFIOS isn’t, but on the other hand, The Fault in our Stars goes, shall we say, all the way. In Zanesville is something of a tease.
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