Friday, June 27, 2014

Book Review: Life by Committee, by Corey Ann Haydu

Title: Life by Committee
Author: Corey Ann Haydu
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Read: June 2014
Where It Came From: BEA
Genre: YA-contemporary
Rating: 2.5 Assignments

The Quick and Dirty:

A formerly good girl is obsessed with a hockey player who's been flirting with her online while dating another girl at their high school. When she joins a web community of truth and dares, she gets some action with the hockey player but almost ruins her life and the lives of those around her. The cover is beautiful, the actions of the characters are not.

The Wordy and Spoilery Version:

Tabitha used to be a Rory Gilmore. The now teenage child of teen parents, she lives in a small town in New England, enjoys reading strangers’ marginalia in works of classic literature (with a particular fondness for Frances Hodgson Burnett), and drinks lots of coffee. But Tabitha is not handling puberty well, from anyone’s perspective other than her own. Her book-loving friends felt awkward around her growing breasts and interest in boys, and have left her socially adrift; her parents are expecting a new baby, and have made her feel like a starter-child; and her only interest in the boyfriend department is already going out with a depressed Artiste in their high school. When Tab finds a note at the end of a marked-up Secret Garden, she joins an internet community dedicated to sharing secrets and doing relevant assignments meant to change their lives into something remarkable. The first assignment, to kiss her love-interest, fills her with excitement, but the assignments start to have repercussions Tab isn’t sure are ethical.

Personally I struggled to understand Tabitha, and found myself allied with her former best friends, who wished she’d wash off the mascara and return to literary discussions. So, there, I’m as petty as they are, I guess. But it was really hard to develop sympathy for Tabitha! She’s obsessed with another girl’s boyfriend, she’s moping around her house and coffee shop, and she plays along in a truth-and-dare game that anyone could tell is a bad idea. The only positive thing about Tab is that she’s likely a good portrait of a teenager. I want to shake her, and every adult in the book is on the same page as me.

The actual problem of the book for me is in the resolution. To avoid having her secrets spread as a consequence of refusing a challenge on the website, Tabitha interrupts her school’s morning assembly to tell everyone the secrets she shared on the site. In a scene out of Mean Girls, everyone else takes the opportunity to share his or her own secrets, and the principal lets this go on for an entire school day. I could say that this is a little too close to Mean Girls to feel fresh; I could also say that it’s unrealistic to think that an entire day of instruction would be given up to microphone confessions. But that’s not really what left me wishing for something else.

The ending is dramatic but doesn’t seem to actually resolve much. By the end of the book I was getting the impression that Tabitha’s transformation came from her anxiety about the new baby and the ways that it would change her family. Yet aside from her parents advising her to air her secrets to the school, the family aspect of the plot is gone by the climactic scene. Apparently her father has been able to quit his marijuana habit within a week? And having a family meeting about the online drama means that Tabitha feels parented to the point that she’s okay with a new sibling? And is her mother’s dress more appropriate to wear to school than the clothes that everyone thinks are slutty?

I don’t need my endings to wrap up everything with a ribbon and bow. I like perfectly wrapped up endings, but I also appreciate artfully vague endings (The Spectacular Now stands out in my recent reading for this quality). My problem here is that the dramatic moment of triumph and its aftermath didn’t solve the big issues I saw Tabitha having. Maybe it’s my perspective at a different stage of life than Tabitha, but Rory Gilmore made some crazy stupid life decisions too, and their ultimate resolution (a powerful moment between mother and daughter) seemed to match the conflicts.

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