April 28, 2011


Delirium. By Lauren Oliver. Harper. $17.99.

Subway Girl. By P.J. Converse. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Bad Apple. By Laura Ruby. HarperTeen. $8.99.

     Love is difficult, messy, complicated, uncertain, and the source of a huge amount of pain as well as a great deal of joy. And that’s just in real life. In teen-oriented novels such as these three, it is even more pointed and more difficult. Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, the first book of a planned trilogy, takes the handling of love as a destructive force to be rigidly controlled – from George Orwell’s 1984 – and reinterprets it for teenage readers. This is a book in which the government has found a “cure” for the “disease” of love, administers the Cure to citizens when they reach the age of 18, and then chooses mates for people according to its own dictates and preferences. The inevitable star-crossed lovers here are Lena Haloway, who lives under government control and is nearing her 18th birthday, and Alex, a boy from the Wilds – the area beyond the government-managed sector. “No matter what the regulators do, they exist for our protection, for our own good,” Lena thinks at first; but of course she finds out that that is far from true. The experience of Lena’s own mother, who resisted the Cure when her time came, sets readers up for the idea that Lena, too, will find her way to resistance. Not that she is the only one: it seems inevitable that teens will rebel against (for example) the Library of Authorized Music and Movies (LAMM, as in “lamb,” as in being led like sheep, or like lambs to the slaughter – Oliver is nothing if not obvious). Lena learns that her best friend, Hana, is already off the straight-and-narrow of their world: “She’s been turning into someone I don’t know – someone with secrets and weird habits and opinions about things we’re not even supposed to think about.” But despite her fear of “vampires and werewolves and Invalids: things that will rip into you, tear you to shreds,” Lena discovers – after she meets Alex – that love is something worth having, worth fighting for. Soon, Alex saves Lena’s life “from the people who are supposed to protect us and keep us safe. From the people who are supposed to keep us safe from the people like Alex.” And so Lena’s world is, predictably, turned upside-down, and she begins a search for her mother, who may be alive after all, and the book simply drips with the evil of chapter-heading quotations from such sources as the “Comprehensive Compilation of Dangerous Words and Ideas.” A terrible sacrifice is as inevitable as is Lena’s end-of-book escape in the super-familiar story arc here.

     Things are less familiar, at least on the surface, in Subway Girl, which boasts an exotic setting (Hong Kong) and an unusual premise: Amy and Simon, two teens with all sorts of problems, meet on a subway and connect instantly, soon becoming deeply emotionally involved. Hmm. Well, maybe P.J. Converse’s first young-adult novel doesn’t have a very unusual premise after all. But the book does have some interesting dialogue, much of it computer-to-computer, as when Amy writes to Simon, “Schools are strange little countries. You know? I mean, we have to go through them and you take the work seriously but everything else is a joke. Last week this girl was sent home because she wore nail polish. I mean, who cares?” In fact, Simon does not take schoolwork seriously – his big secret is that he plans to drop out – and Amy is a great deal more sophisticated than he is. She is also in a great deal more trouble: pregnant by her ex-boyfriend. There is a language barrier, too: Amy does not speak Chinese, and Simon, although he can make his way in English, is failing the subject at school. The two interrelate in a variety of ways, becoming closer but never fully a “couple,” and they eventually work their way through to a bittersweet ending in which they must go separate ways but expect to remain, at some level, mutually interdependent. Not very realistic, that expectation, but Converse gives the protagonists enough grounding in reality so that their story has at least a veneer of plausibility.

     So does Laura Ruby’s plot in Bad Apple, in which a student who doesn’t fit in succeeds in connecting with a single teacher – who is then rumored to be having an affair with her and is therefore suspended. The book is a trip through the mind and, to some extent, the heart of 16-year-old Tola Riley, semiprofessional misfit and all-around “bad girl” at her school. She has an 18-year-old sister, Tiffany, whom she calls Madge because she refuses to call her Tiffany, for no very good reason; indeed, Tola has no very good reason for anything, or at least seems not to. She does have the usual trappings of the “troubled teen,” such as a remarried father whose new wife “is six hundred feet tall and looks like one of those opera singers [who] wear the metal breastplates and the big hats with the horns.” Madge has lots of troubles of her own, of which Tola only belatedly becomes aware: “I’m about to ask what Madge is going through, with her straight As and her gap year and the fact that no one is writing talk-show-inspired blogs about her, but for once I stop myself. I see the red eyes, the dark circles draped underneath. She’s going through something. Just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not real.” This is actually something of an epiphany for Tola, the first time she truly seems to see anyone other than herself, anyone else’s needs other than her own. Tola justifies her own acting-out with the traditional, “I just want them to listen to me. I want them to hear me.” But she is a known liar, thief and all-around misbehaver, so getting anyone to pay close attention is something of a struggle, to put it mildly. Her resentments lie deep, all the way to her father naming her Cenerentola, another name for Cinderella. Fairy-tale motifs run through Bad Apple (starting with the book’s title, which recalls the Snow White story). When Tola finally confronts the classmate who is behind all the nastiness, including the false report about her and Mr. Mymer, she says, “I suddenly understand every bit of violence in every fairy tale I’ve ever read. The ovens, the axes, the cauldrons full of snakes and lizards and the urge to shove people into them. People always say there are two sides to every story, but I don’t believe that’s true. Not always. There are villains in this world who do terrible things.” There is a lot in this book, which is about cyber-bullying as much as anything else. In fact, there may be too much for many young readers to absorb: fairy tales, depression, art, psychology, all the usual pressures of school life, family disintegration, the ills of old age, and more. The writing is good enough to help offset some of the dark intensity of the plotting, but Bad Apple is still a lot to swallow without choking – although, at the core, it has a great deal to say.

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