Thursday, October 15, 2009
Story of a Girl
The National Book Award finalists are announced. In honor of this event, I'm reviewing a past finalist, Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl.
When a book is a finalist in a prestigious award, recommended by a friend, and endorsed by Chris Crutcher, I read it.
And I can most definitely understand the high praises.
A memorable book has to have all the usual suspects: believable characters, interesting dilemmas, unexpected plot twists, and convincing resolutions. But even when these are in place, a book can still be easily forgotten. Something else has to tie them all together into a satisfying whole. Just what that something is, is where craft leaves off and art takes over.
For me, part of the magic of this book is that it unfolds organically. This is not the first word that comes to mind when I read, but that's the one I keep coming back to. The story and plot twists and conflicts and characters are not separate entities that are just joined, their seams sanded and polished. They grow and develop by influencing and being influenced by one another. There are no events forced onto the story to create a climax. There are no characters thrown in just to produce conflict. Everything grows out of the characters in their particular set of circumstances.
The difference between this book and one written in strict adherence to writing rules is the difference between a conscientious student who lists out five ways to eradicate illiteracy in inner city children and an experienced teacher who live among these children, talking to them and their parents, and looking at the problem from their eyes.
While there may be one single defining moment that incites all of the events that happen in this book, but there isn't one single defining moment when they are all solved. The shifts in their lives and perception are significant but not monumental.
It's not a flashy book. It does not set out to solve the biggest problem among teenage girls. It doesn't provide catchy one-liners to live on. It's a unassuming book, as the title suggests; it's just a story about a girl. Yet it touched my heart without a single manipulative moment. It's a book that made me forget I'm a writer. It's a book that reminded me I am a human being.
[addendum to the original post: Sara Zarr is being interviewed today over at Cynsations. She talks about her new book, Once Was Lost.]