Monday, December 1, 2008

Chasing Vermeer: and some other elusive answers

I've been re-reading several middle grade novels lately, driven by questions I haven't thought of before or questions whose answers I don't remember. The
first book is Chasing Vemeer, debut novel of Blue Balliett. I picked it up again for two reasons.

My middle-grade novel has some mystery elements but doesn't fit into the same mold as standard mysteries (think Nancy Drew.) I knew Chasing Vermeer, a non-standard mystery, won the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery in 2005, so I wanted to re-read it.

At the same time, Balliett's newest novel, Calder's Game, was released. I love Alexander Calder's works, and I admire the thinking of John Dewey, an educator associated with the Lab School at the University of Chicago, where the protagonists of these novels attend. I picked up Calder's Game with anticipation.

About thirty pages into it,I
realized I had to keep telling myself to focus. One of the things that distracted me was the frequent shifts in point-of-view. It distracted me so much I had to
find out if the author did the same thing in her first book, which I had enjoyed. So I put aside Calder's Game and re-read Chasing Vermeer.

Question #1: Did Balliett use shifting p.o.v in Chasing Vermeer? If so, was it distracting?

The omniscient p.o.v in chapter 1 set the stage perfectly for a Twilight Zone vibe. Chapter 2 was primarily in Calder Pillay's p.o.v, except for the few paragraphs in Petra Andalee's. These shifts were clearly marked, creating no confusion In subsequent chapters, the p.o.v switched frequently, but never in an unclear or intrusive way. The author was very skillful in making those shifts seamless and almost transparent.

Answer to #1: Yes. No.

Question #2: what makes this book successful?

  • It provokes thinking, by asking questions and exploring ideas, such as what is art? What is the best from of communication? Is art a lie, but a lie that tells the truth, as Picasso stated? Is all of life about rearranging a few simple ideas? What if thoughts don't have to be broken into words. Thoughtful young readers will no doubt have considered these very same issues.
  • The characters and their friendships are authentic and not at all cliched. There is a scene that describes the awkward and tentative gestures between Calder and Petra early in their friendship that is unique but believable and touching.
  • Mysteries are typically plot-driven, and some don't emphasize language use, but Chasing Vermeer isn't one of them. Here is an example of an imaginative use of language: Petra looking a pictures that "made her feel as if she could leave everything predictable behind."
  • A lot of the action takes place within the heads of the characters. Depending on the reader, this can be a plus or a minus. I happen to like knowing how characters think and react to their situations, especially when it is handled skillfully.
Answer to #2: Excellent writing, believable and complex characters, thoughtful and engaging.

Question #3: Is it a mystery?

Unknown perpetrator? Check. Red herrings? Check. Multiple suspects? Check. Unexpected turn of events? Check. Protagonists solving the mystery by sheer logic and deduction? Um.

Calder and Petra receive information from a character in a painting and come to conclusions from coincidences that are more unlikely than usual. I've read interviews given by Blue Balliett and know that she intentionally includes mystical/paranormal elements in the book but I do feel let down in this aspect.

Answer to #3: Yes, but it leads to other questions, including:

Question #4: Where is the balance between having a book considered on its own criteria and submitting it to expectations within a genre?

I'll need to shelf this question to read more and think further.

Do you think this is a reasonable question to ask? Do you have opinions on this? I'd appreciate your thoughts.

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