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.

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“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.

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Film Review – Divergent (spoiler light-ish)

blogd1 blogd2“Divergent” made an impressive $56 million during its opening weekend, easily leaving recent YA adaptation box office flops “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” trailing forlornly in the dust. Adapted from Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy, the film has been hotly anticipated as the potential successor to the colossal “The Hunger Games” trilogy. There are indeed certain cursory similarities. “Divergent” is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago in which society is divided by personality type into five distinct factions. “The Hunger Games” is set in a similarly post-apocalyptic United States, in which an autocratic ‘Capitol’ presidblogd11es over twelve sharply divided districts. Yet while “The Hunger Games” revolves around a teenaged heroine, it never feels like it can merely be enjoyed and appreciated by the very age group it portrays. The idea of a reality program in which children fight to the death as a punishment for their parents’ insurrection is both clever and disturbing; its uncanny parallels with our reality-obsessed society can be appreciated by people of all ages. The premise of “Divergent” is much less inventive. The surviving population of Chicago is separated into factions: Dauntless (the brave), Erudite (the smart), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest) and Abnegation (the selfless). This form of cataloging taps into our obsession with self-categorization and self-analysis, attested to by the sheer volume of ‘Which (insert anything here) are you?’ quizzes on Buzzfeed. To this day I have friends discussing which Hogwarts house they’d be sorted into, or even whether they’d be a House Stark or a House Lannister if they lived in Westeros. Indeed there’s now even a Buzzfeed quiz for “Divergent” fans – see http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariellecalderon/which-divergent-faction-do-you-actually-belong-in (I was Abnegation: apparently if I was Tris I’d have stayed safely in my faction and there’d be no story to tell).

blogd8 blogd10But (spoiler) some people don’t fit neatly into one category. These people are ‘divergent’. So the film has a very simply premise with a very simple message: people are complicated and conformity is bad. Criticisms of the plot’s basis aside, my reaction to watching much of “Divergent” can be summarized by this gif…

blogd13The film was entertaining and easy to watch. Despite its 139 minute running time, it didn’t feel particularly bloated or inclusive of superfluous material. The extended time meant the film was able to develop the central relationship and flesh out the protagonists’ characters realistically. The hamminess and simplicity of the plot itself was countered by the fun of self-insertion into the narrative. (What faction would I be in? What would my fear landscape look like?) The charisma of, and chemistry between, the two leads really anchored the film and more than made up for the unremarkable story and the vaguely tedious climax. Shailene Woodley proved her acting chops in “The Descendants” a couple of years ago and she proves them again here as the Abnegation-turned-Dauntless sixteen year old Tris Prior. She manages to deliver some fairly cheesy lines with a straight face (which is more than can be said for the cast of “Twilight”) and, like Jennifer Lawrence, is able to convey conflicting emotions and thoughts, described in detail using the first person narrative in the source material, with just a facial expression. I wasn’t sure about Theo James as the semi-Byronic Four when I first heard the casting news but he turned out to be more than a match for Woodley. Just look at the angst and intensity!

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“Divergent” is definitely flawed and, superficial comparisons aside (strong female lead, dystopian setting), it’s definitely no “The Hunger Games”. It is, however, a highly gratifying experience if you try not to compare it to anything that’s come before it. Masquerading as an action piece, it’s effectively a straightforward and slightly hokey romance and coming-of-age story centered around a futuristic sorting hat. And I’m looking forward to the next helping in March 2015.

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