24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Month: May 2016

Abby Reads: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Delacorte Press, 2014, 240 pages
YA Fiction

There’s a genre of books — and I don’t know if there’s a name for these kinds of books — that I love dearly. I’ve been referring to them as the privileged-angsty-white(-school)-boy books and all the better if they have a peripheral first-person narrator. Books like The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard (review forthcoming!), The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and A Separate Peace by John Knowles all fall under this category. I sometimes throw The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in there, too. There are themes like the human condition and nobility and all sorts of other great concepts that, from a literary perspective, are kind of reserved for the human beings as described in my hyphenated descriptor there.

Generally, women can’t be the stars of this books because, well, women problems (am I right?). By this, I mean women have problems that men do not and since men are the default in our society, these kinds of stories cannot be about women, though women do experience the troubles laid out in these books. Women, here, could just as easily be anyone who isn’t a privileged, (often) wealthy (or at least surrounded by people who are wealthy; I’ve found this genre will frequently put the main character at a disadvantage through a lack of wealth compared to their peers for a variety of literary reasons), probably-Christian, American (maybe British), white male identifying as a man. I absolutely own and recognize that this particular “genre” is not diverse. In fact, it’s exclusionary.

But I think that’s what I so enjoy about it. The wouldn’t it be nice for these grand existential problems to be the kinds of problems I encounter? And, yes, okay, many of these books end with murder or death or a lifetime doomed with isolation, substance abuse, what-have-you. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (admittedly as part of some writing I’m in the process of planning), and I don’t know it’ll do anyone any good if I try to pin down why, exactly, I enjoy this genre-without-a-name so much, especially when it serves to reinforce existing power structures that are doing real damage to not only myself, but to friends who are less privileged than I due to race, class, ability, sexual orientation, and plenty of other markers I’m probably too privileged to even be aware of (and for that, I am sorry).

I’m digressing. There are a few books I’ve gotten my hands on that have a girl/woman main character and sit on the very edge of this group of books: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. And that’s it.

I have read a minimum of 500 books (thanks, Goodreads) and these are the only two I can think of. A couple paragraphs ago, I explained why I think authors avoid women in this genre. But, clearly, it can be done. In fact, E. Lockhart not only does it in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but she also tackles issues of privilege and equality in an eloquent, articulate, and digestible way. Did I mention her book is for young adults? Yeah.

So, needless to say, I loved The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.

When I heard Lockhart had published a new book, We Were Liars, and I saw that it was once again about privilege as well as summer homes and the lofty wealthy, I was all over it.

Before I get further into this, I want to point out that the marketing for this book was a huge challenge because — and describing why, of course, is also a challenge, so forgive me for the vagueness — the end of the book refers to an event that happened in the past which changes the entire context for the book. So, the publishers had a really hard time figuring out how to get people interested in reading the book without revealing, really, anything about it in terms of plot and circumstances. They settled with a tagline that went along the lines of, “If anyone asks you how it ends: LIE.”

I liked We Were Liars. It wasn’t as good as The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, but it was good in its own right. I figured out the twist about two-thirds through the book, so if you’re looking for something really shocking, this isn’t it. We Were Liars absolutely took on the topics inherent with privilege that so many others gloss over, especially with the help of the character, Gat. But I have to admit, for all of the hype the book got especially with credit toward the twist, I felt the reveal took away from the weight of the book. It felt that, rather than being a component of the story — a piece that was just that, a piece of a whole — the backstory was the star with the rest of the content playing the chorus. In other words, it felt like Lockhart had the idea for the twist and built a rickety shack around it: a rickety shack around a golden fireplace. It just didn’t fit.

Part of what was so frustrating about this was the rickety shack would have well been a palace in other context. On the whole, the world, the characters, the language, the pacing — all of it was great on its own. I was so disappointed when the secret of the book turned out to smash it all, and not, I think, in the way Lockhart intended it to. I’m still working out how it is the reveal is so incongruent with the rest of the book. Though a bit predictable, the twist was interesting and, on its own, well done. I can’t wrap my head around why it feels like a decrepit fireplace in a golden palace while also feeling like a golden fireplace in a rickety shack.

Early on in the book, I tweeted at E. Lockhart, saying that my jaw was already on the floor after only twenty-five pages. And it was — at this point, I was going solely on how beautiful the book was; how it captured the world of old money and melodrama without feeling like a soap opera. The language of We Were Liars is spectacular. Though I had some trouble matching the language with the main character — that, too, didn’t quite fit to my liking — I savored it all the same. It’s a piece of art, but still a very separate thing from the plot and context and all.

Lockhart treats her teen characters as their age, which is to say she does not infantilize or condescend to them as many YA authors do. I’m so grateful to her for that. While at the time I was less-than-satisfied by fairy tale interludes that are sprinkled throughout the book, I see their worth and symbolism from a distance. I still felt some of it was over-the-top, though.

There’s no easy way to review We Were Liars. It’s not so much a book as a disjointed experience that you have to experience for yourself. It’s certainly worth the few hours it takes to read, but if you’ve been influenced by the hype, consider lowering your expectations a bit. You’ll enjoy it — and perhaps even understand the hype — much more.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2016, 448 pages
YA Fantasy

I’ve thought a lot about what I want to say about the final book in the Raven Cycle by Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King. I’ve always been a fan of Stiefvater’s ornate-yet-subtle style, and I think that’s something she held to pretty well in The Raven King. I know many readers were holding on to the idea that The Raven King would not only be just as good as the books leading up to it, but perhaps even better. Stiefvater would have to write her way out of the promised death of Gansey and the angst that was sure to come with finding Glendower and obtaining the favor he was meant to grant.13076730_10209461256711348_7517849345745051664_n

Reviewing this book without spoilers is immensely difficult, so I’ll be as vague as possible while still trying to convey the issues here. Both of the events mentioned above were so lackluster compared to the rest of the series. I’ve struggled a lot with this because, just before the book was released, Maggie Stiefvater shared a post on her blog which described how she wanted her readers to feel after finishing the book: “I don’t want them to be able to say what it is they want, though — I want it to be a bigger thing than words. I hope they get to the end and don’t know what to do for the rest of the day. I hope they feel unsettled and needing of something more. I want messages that say, ‘Stiefvater, please, I just want …’ and then silence. They don’t know what they want. They just want.” I opened up The Raven King with this on my mind and, when I finished the book, very much wanting and still feeling champagne-sparkly from the rush of the end of a series, I felt like Stiefvater was a genius — she had succeeded!

And yet. I turned over the events of the book in my head. Yes, I wanted — I wanted more fireworks, more intensity, more answers. I don’t think this was what Stiefvater meant, I realized. Or, if she did, imposing that desire onto her readers before they had a chance to read the books feels wrong. Let’s suppose my initial understanding was incorrect and Stiefvater wanted readers to feel compelled to embody Gansey and his quest for more — to be more, to be part of something bigger than himself, to be, as Henry Cheng and Gansey both say at one point during the series, a prince among men. In brief moments, I did feel that way. I wanted a quest, an adventure, a world that shimmers in a way ours does not. But those moments were short-lived and it was not, ultimately, what I felt as I turned the final page.

Now, let’s suppose Stiefvater wanted readers to want more of the Raven Cycle. She certainly succeeded there, leaving characters without the completed arcs they deserved, ending main plot points with no bang, in short — not delivering what was promised. If this is what Stiefvater meant (and I’m not sure it was, I certainly hope it wasn’t), I think it’s an awfully cruel thing to do to readers. What actually happened here, I’ll leave to you to decide. I’ve turned it over and over for the last week and still can’t figure it out. Either way, I feel a bit jilted.

As I’ve gained distance from the book, I’ve become more critical of it while simultaneously romanticizing it more. Stiefvater has a way of embedding symbolism and meaning that emerges long after the book has ended even without second readings. So perhaps I’m catching on to some of that now, which still leaves me in a place where I’m unable to give The Raven King a solid rating one way or another. One moment, I’m angry at the lack of resolution, the next, I’m marveling at the symbolism within that lack of resolution. I’m probably putting too much stock into Stiefvater’s intentions, but as a writer who is so-very-present on social media and who regularly engages with interpretations of her text, Stiefvater kind of brings that onto herself.

I’d also very much like to address the racism present in the whole series, but especially in The Raven King. With Henry Cheng playing a much bigger role than he previously had, there are multiple instances of blatant anti-Asian sentiments and some of the “subtler” (subtle to white people, mostly) racism such as the perpetuated Asian mob stereotype in Henry’s mother and the whole “dragon lady” trope. I won’t speak at length on it because as a white person, I don’t have the place to. I just want to say I saw it, it was inappropriate, and I hope Stiefvater does better in the future. I welcome those with a more nuanced perspective on the subject than I to comment further and only add that I was severely disappointed to see two characters I so love(d) engaging in racist mocking, regardless of the cultural context of Virginia and teenage boys.

Like a lot of the Raven Cycle, throughout the final novel I felt consistently lost without direction, but felt like that was how I was supposed to feel or that there’s something everyone else is getting about the series and its plot that I’m not and never will. I can never get a good grasp on the Raven Cycle world, despite how incredibly detailed and grounded it seems — there’s always something painfully vague about it. It’s like I missed out on some quintessential childhood experience that would clear it all up. I still don’t imagine the women of 300 Fox Way as everyone else seems to — when I see fan art of young Calla, Persephone, and the whole bunch, I tilt my head to the side in wonder, as they are still stuck as middle-aged and older women in my imagination. It’s been that way since The Raven Boys. I always feel like I’m doing something wrong when I’m reading this series.

And yet for all this criticism, there’s something really special about it all, even the last book. Like everything before it, The Raven King doesn’t confine itself to young adult literature by ignoring adult characters or adult-only scenes. The Gray Man and Maura have moments together. Piper Greenmantle and her father, too. Stiefvater makes the world very real in that way, despite Maura’s throwing-caution-to-the-wind parenting style. I’m still disappointed in it all, but I can’t outright say I disliked *The Raven King*, either. I wanted more for it, to be sure, but it also feels like it’s exactly what it was meant to be. It’s a jumble.

The only thing to do, it seems, is glare in Stiefvater’s general direction with a mix of annoyance and awe.

(With an aside that I’m giving it three hearts; I’d originally given it four on Goodreads, but with more perspective and too much confusion over my real feelings about the book — no doubt influenced by Stiefvater’s outside-the-book comments, the event I attended at Hooray for Books in Alexandria, my general admiration for Stiefvater aside from The Raven King, and the Goodreads reviews I read after finishing the book and still considering my own feelings [check out Alienor’s review for something a bit more coherent, if spoilery] — I think three is the best I can do. Maybe three-and-a-half, depending on the day.)

You can read my review of The Raven Boys here. I never got around to The Dream Thieves or Blue Lilly, Lilly Blue. Oops.

❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤

 

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