Book Review – Vanishing Girls

I’m back!!! I highly doubt anyone noticed my absence but just in case you wondered what I’ve been doing for the past seven months…I wrote my dissertation, graduated, moved to London, started working and have been gradually wrapping my head around the fact I’m now meant to be a grown-up. Rest assured, I’ve been reading and watching things voraciously during my hiatus and I have a lot to write about. So withblogout further ado, I’ll get right down to it.

Lauren Oliver’s ‘Vanishing Girls’ got under my skin from almost the very first page and I read the whole book in just one afternoon. I bought a copy from the amazing Strand Bookstore in the West Village (which, incidentally, is now home to the famous bench from ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – go see!) on a whim during a recent trip to NYC, and hadn’t previously heard anything about this book. I believe, as luck would have it, ‘Vanishing Girls’ was released just a few days ago. I’d previously really enjoyed Oliver’s writing (see my glowing review of Delirium here), so was hoping to read something equally compelling and involving. I wasn’t disappointed. At its bare bones, ‘Vanishing Girls’ explores the complex relationship between two sisters – Nick and Dara – following a traumatic car accident. The obligatory YA love triangle, drama and angst are all present and accounted for, but that’s certainly not to say this novel is a cliché. In fact, Oliver seablog3mlessly blends multiple genres while convincingly building the intriguing relationship between the two sisters, and simultaneously portraying their complicated friendship with childhood friend, Parker. It initially appears the presentation of sisterhood is going to be a little reductive with the two girls lazily represented as polar opposites (the prim sister and the wild sister trope à la Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in Sweet Valley High comes to mind). Yet Oliver gradually allows her characters to shed their archetypal skins and reveal multiple dimensions. To put it very simply, the characters all just feel real. I don’t have a sister, but I was pleased to see this relationship being examined artistically; friendships between females, as I’ve mentioned before, are regrettably highly underrepresented in text and film.

blog2  original2 tumblr_lctjovYzss1qa48wxo1_500

“That’s what life is, pretty much: full of holes and tangles and ways to get stuck. Uncomfortable and itchy. A present you never asked for, never wanted, never chose. A present you’re supposed to be excited to wear, day after day, even when you’d rather stay in bed and do nothing.”

Having previously identified my personal distaste for frustrating dripping tap narratives, here it’s pulled off really successfully. The book is full of secrets, twists and turns that kept me flipping the pages, but questions are answered fairly frequently and strings tied up while new ones are tantalizingly created. This means the reader is voluntarily gripped and engaged, too immersed in the world to put the book down, rather than being left furiously tearing through pages, held hostage by a promised revelation that keeps irritatingly being alluded to. Part epistolary, non-linear, and with competing dual narratives, the novel is intricate and its various interlocking strands and flashbacks all lead up to a hugely satisfying conclusion. You won’t realise just how skilful the narrative is until you read back over the book (which I had the good fortune to do on my plane journey back to London the very next day). It’s extremely smart in terms of its structure and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see that conversations and scenes throughout the book have a multitude of layers, meanings and interpretations. I was astounded to find that ‘Vanishing Girls’ can be read in two completely different ways. Not knowing the reason for this, and reading the book blind the first time, is so fundamental to enjoying the story that for once I won’t spoil it. Just go read it. Then read it again and you’ll see what I mean.

“Sometimes people stop loving you. And that’s the kind of darkness that never gets fixed, no matter how many moons rise again, filling the sky with a weak approximation of light.”

My one criticism would be that the missing sister B-plot (the disappearance of nine year old girl Madeline Snow) felt a little shoehorned in. I understand that Oliver was probably trying to draw parallels between different sisterly relationships, add some extra thematic depth or even just increase the level of suspense but, for me, that story never really went anywhere and didn’t naturally coalesce with rest of the novel. Indeed, the thriller/mystery aspect was less interesting to me than the character studies at play. Personal preference, maybe, but I felt emotional bonds were really giphythe crux of the novel and, judging by the time spent by the author on developing and fleshing out those relationships in comparison to time spent on the Madeline Snow storyline, that was also where Oliver’s interest was really located when writing the book. In this balance between emotions and mystery, the tone of Oliver’s ‘Vanishing Girls’ is comparable to E. Lockhart’s ‘We Were Liars’, and if you enjoyed this I’d recommend that – and vice versa. However, while the title alone evokes ‘Gone Girl’, and the missing person subplot certainly is superficially comparable, that’s where the similarities end.

‘Vanishing Girls’ isn’t the fantastic thriller some might be looking for, and if Oliver intended to write a teen version of ‘Gone Girl’ (which I don’t think she did, though that’s what some reviewers seem to imply), then she failed. What it is, instead, is a nuanced and moving portrait of sisterhood, guilt, and the scars you can’t see.

tumblr_ni4jv15T5z1qdlytco1_500

Advertisements

Book Review – Delirium

blogde1In “Delirium”, Lauren Oliver envisions a future in which love is a disease (termed amor deliria nervosa or ‘the deliria’) mandatorily cured at eighteen years of age by an invasive lobotomy-style procedure. Oliver’s novel taps into the huge demand in the YA market for dystopian fiction and the author astutely links her dystopian premise with another ostensible YA prerequisite – the star-crossed teenage romance. “Delirium” shares huge similarities with Ally Condie’s “Matched” (which I reviewed here) yet expands upon Condie’s imagined obligatory matching process and her consequent rumination on free will, with a stronger, more ambitious concept  with wider-reaching implications: the medical diagnosis of love as a severe affliction and the root of all conflict and unhappiness. Oliver depicts a United States devoid of passion – whether it be passion for a romantic partner, a friend, music, literature, colours, a hobby, or even a family member. Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of Oliver’s vision is the passive acquiescence of the citizens, who give up their ability to feel sadness along with their ability to feel anything at all.

‘Hate isn’t the most dangerous thing…Indifference is.’

In the futuristic society in “Delirium” William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” is on the high school curriculum in order to educate students about the dangers of the deliria: it serves as a cautionary tale. Dancing is banned and dreaming is rare. Those infected by love are ‘cured’ against their will, and are depicted thrashing like rabies victims against their physical restraints until a portion of their brain is forcibly excised. In Oliver’s society our perception of love is turned completely on its head. Rather elevating love as the transcendent goal most people aim for and feel incomplete without, Oliver presents love as a mental illness which impedes rational and ordinary function. Oliver’s depiction doesn’t stray far from reality, and the author clearly recognizes that the more relatable the nightmarish world, the scarier it is. As Spike Jonze writes in “Her”, falling in love ‘is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.’ The inextricable nature of love and obsession are indeed often acknowledged within our own society and the chemical nature of desire really isn’t all that different from any other kind of chemical imbalance. Dopamine leads to attraction. The ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin leads to attachment. The colloquial term ‘lovesick’ demonstrates the synonymic nature of ‘love’ and ‘madness’: it is, in its early stages, as physical a reaction as it is emotional, despite our attempts to romanticize the notion.

‘The most dangerous sicknesses are those that make us believe we are well.’

In one sense, “Delirium” is comparable with Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. In this film, the fictional pseudo-scientific company Lacuna Inc offers heartbroken adults the chance to erase memories of their loved ones in order to ease their emotional turmoil. Yet halfway through his procedure one man realizes the pain is worth keeping the good memories of the relationship. Likewise, “Delirium” is a proponent of passionate love (along with the sweaty palms, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, sadness, and other pathological symptoms that are part of the package).

blogde2 blogde3 blogde4 blogde5

The medical cure administeredblogde8 in “Delirium” is reminiscent of the aversion therapy ‘Ludovico technique’ in Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, a 1962 novella which also deals with the issue of free will v the state’s authority. Similarly, in his 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Ken Kesey details various controversial psychiatric procedures, namely electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and lobotomization. Oliver also clearly borrows from the sordid history of psychosurgery for her shadowy and noblogde7n-specific descriptions of the procedure in “Delirium”. It must be noted that the most terrifying aspect of dystopian fiction is the fact that the most ghoulish and terrifying practices included within the dystopian corpus are actually borrowed liberally from humanity’s history. Indeed, it’s probably impossible to imagine humans doing worse things to one another than have already been done at some point and somewhere in the world. On a more cheery note, the central romance is squee-worthy. A ‘squee’, FYI, is defined by urban dictionary as ‘the cry of the rabid fangirl’ and looks something like this:

blogde9There’s no trope more popular in YA fiction than lovers torn apart by external circumstances (cough and so the lion fell in love with the lamb cough) as fangirls love nothing more than rooting for a seemingly hopeless case. Oliver, thankfully, manages to find a fresh set of obstacles which provide protagonists Lena and Alex with plenty of conflict. Namely, Lena is a seventeen year old who wants to follow the rules and be cured, and Alex is an ‘Invalid’ (an uncured member of the resistance from the Wilds). In addition to this central romance, Oliver fleshes out an interesting dynamic between Lena and her childhood best friend Hana, with both girls realizing that post-cure their attachment to one another will be non-existent.

The best YA literature doesn’t patronise its audience. Teenage readers are as capable of recognizing weak characterisation and underdeveloped relationships as their adult counterparts. A great YA book should explore relevant and serious themes and treat its readers with respect. Yet at the same time the best YA literature isn’t afraid to be sincere and earnest, and to wear its heart and its message on its sleeve. The message of “Delirium” is serious but simple: all the pain and rejection and humiliation of growing up and feeling things is better than feeling nothing at all.

 ‘Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish’d and cured is that the lunacy is so
ordinary that the whippers are in love too.’ – Shakespeare

‘Well, love is insanity. The ancient Greeks knew that. It is the taking over of a rational and lucid mind by delusion and self-destruction. You lose yourself, you have no power over yourself, you can’t even think straight.’ – Marilyn French

‘Isn’t what we mean by ‘falling in love’ a kind of sickness and craziness, an illusion, a blindness to what the loved person is really like.’ – Freud

‘Love is a serious mental disease.’ – Plato

‘Love is a madness.’ – Socrates