Archive for the ‘Adele Griffin’ Category

Griffin, Adele.  Where I Want to Be.  2005.  New York: Speak/Penguin, 2007.

This book is strangely similar to Marci Dermansky’s Twins:  two sisters, (close in age but not in this case actually twins) are in many ways opposites: one is considered attractive, the other not so much; one is sociable and well-liked, the other isolated; one is a version of the “normal” teen, the other not only strangely imaginative but in fact diagnosed as mentally ill and on (and then off) meds; one is growing up, the other refusing with all her will to leave childhood  The less popular one has depended on her sister as her only friend, and when the other sister makes other relationships outside the family and gets a boyfriend, the less normal sister feels deserted and acts strangely as a result–much as in Twins, although here everyone is aware of a diagnosed illness and thinks of it as such, and so it seems less melodramatic and horror-movie-like, as if in between driving each other mad in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had visits from a sensible public health nurse who prescribes valium and walks in the park.

The focus, as in Twins, is on how the sisters have to learn to move on beyond their claustrophobic relationship.  The major difference  is that in this case, one of the sisters is already dead.  She died in a car crash some months earlier, but she appears nevertheless in chapters alternating with her sister, as we hear of her ghostly attempts to cling to the visceral world and the past.  She clearly needs to move on (isn’t that always the case with ghosts, poor dears?), and it seems she has by the end.  But her sister also has been pulled back into the relationship she was moving beyond by her sister’s death–she has become fixed and isolated herself, refusing to go out and seeing only her boyfriend, refusing to think about the future in favour of holding on to the past,  fearing the movingo n will mean she is guilty ofr deserting her sister.  So she too has to start moving again, and give up the ghost.  At the end, the living sister goes to where her grandparents used to live, where readers already know the ghostly sister has fixated herself, and suddenly knows that her sister has given her permission to move on–and so both sisters are freed.

In addition to the binaries I listed above, there is the key one of the dead and the living.   It seems to underlie all the others.  Thus, the living sister’s narratives are in the first-person present, providing her with an immediacy at least in contrast to the ghostly one, whose thoughts are described in the third person past.   And while there is a parallel resistance in the earlier parts of the story to moving forward into the present, that gradually changes as it become clear that the ghostly sister is reliving the same idealized events of her past every day over and over again, whereas the living one begins haltingly to engage herself back into the present and on to the future.  The past/present narrative pattern supports a past/presen thematic concern.  And the major thrust is of the deadening weight of the past and madness and stultifying eccentricity, the freeing lightness of a focus on what is to come and is sane and normal and open to change.

The living sister is not actually aware of her sibling–but it turns out that her boyfriend, a boy who became different after an accident that affected his brain, apparently is.  And he’s the one who brings the living sister to finally meet the dead one.  He has become the living sister’s only real support, and she clings to him exactly as her sister has clung to her–so there’s a kind of echo effect here, a variation of the same situation (alternating narratives, once more, as variational in their relationship to each other).   It becomes clear to the living sister that she is holding her boyfriend back more or less as her sister is holding her back–she has to be better so that he can move on also.

One thing that intrigues me about all this is that the happy ending therefore involves the separation of all the characters from each other.  In giving each other freedom, they also all imply that family in the life of a young person–indeed, everything you know and do already–is a sort of stultifying trap.  You can only mature and be happy if you move beyond the comfort of those who already love you into independence and individuality and openness to change.   The idea that maturity and true selfhood is post-familial and inherently fluid seems very ideological and very American, and distressingly dismissive of family ties and indeed all lasting ties to others.  (I realize I’m overstating this in terms of this book, which at least pays lip service to the living girl’s ongoing love of her parents and her boyfriend–but the overall effect is that these ongoingness of such relationship is never anything anyone should count on or value more than one’s freedom and right to change.  And ideas of this sort seem to underly the vast majority of contemporary children’s and YA fiction.)

Why the alternating narratives?  Since that’s the main focus of my interest in all these books, I always have to ask that question.   The answer here, I think, is that readers get to see how the two apparently opposite sisters are sharing versions of the same central problem, that the difference also contains a similarity, one that supports the book’s central concerns.  Indeed, this novel is an excellent example of how structure supports and communicates thematic concerns.  No less important, readers as always in these situations get clues from one narrative that allow them to understand more than characters in the other narrative do, and to know solutions to mysteries before characters do.   just be giving different viewpoints on the same basic situation, this sort of structure invites and encourages an attention to details that encourages readers to become mystery solvers.   And finally, there’s a feeling of the binary that emerges–this and then that, one thing and then the other and opposite–that helps to my mind to identify this as a book written for young people.  Children’s literature seems, yet once more, inherently binary.

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