June 23, 2016
(+++) PITFALLS OF FRIENDSHIP
Swing Sideways. By Nanci Turner Steveson. Harper. $16.99.
This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker. By Terra Elan McVoy. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
Preteen readers who do not have enough emotional upheaval and sadness in their own lives seem to be the intended audience for Nanci Turner Steveson’s Swing Sideways. It is a summertime story about Anabel (Annie), a city girl, and California, a country girl, their unlikely friendship – and the secrets that both deepen and ultimately end it in one of those life-changing ways that authors do not suggest that young readers avoid but actually invite them to experience. This is all supposed to be cathartic, but it comes across as rather manipulative – skillfully manipulative, since Steveson writes very well and knows how to build melodrama effectively. The book is melodrama rather than drama, with the relationships forced in ways that are designed to heighten tension rather than resulting from characterization. Annie suffers from panic attacks. Her parents are typecast Type A schedulers, her mother in particular filling Annie’s life with demands and spreadsheets. For her part, California is determined to heal the estrangement between her mother and her grandfather – who, she says, is going through a cancer drug trial. The healing will occur when California rediscovers some ponies that her mother rode as a child; California believes they are still alive, somewhere on the rundown farm where she is spending the summer. The two girls are, unsurprisingly, opposites, with Annie timid, anxious, sheltered and having an eating disorder, and California brave, wild and a free spirit. Equally unsurprisingly, both learn from each other in the usual coming-of-age manner, with Annie especially forging new relationship patterns within her family as she develops confidence and assertiveness. Annie’s parents are cardboard characters through and through, and California’s relatives are not much better. The whole secrets-within-secrets plotting has a contrived feeling, and the eventual wrenching sadness of the novel’s conclusion so clearly seeks to tug at every reader’s heart again and again that, after a while, the tugging itself becomes formulaic. That does not undermine its effectiveness: young readers who stay with the book will almost certainly cry at what happens, and so will many adults, even when it becomes obvious how things are going to go. Emotional manipulativeness is an authorial skill that Steveson has in abundance, and she certainly knows how to create a protagonist who finds out through unexpected adventures and revelations that she is stronger – and braver – than she ever knew. But that is part of the issue with Swinging Sideways: the directions in which it will go are the ones in which tearjerkers for this age range (and often ones for adults) typically go, and this becomes increasingly apparent as more and more secrets are revealed. This is a book that is easy to love if you are looking for an emotional wringing-out and do not examine too closely the techniques the author uses to provide one.
It is instructive for those so inclined to compare the structure of Swinging Sideways with that of This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker, another book set in summertime that is also about best friends, their relationship, their families and their multitude of problems and issues. The problems here are mostly those of Fiona Coppleton, whose onetime BFF, Cassie Parker, circulated Fiona’s diary and thereby exposed Fiona to all sorts of pain, humiliation, etc. It is rather hard to believe that Fiona would have brought her diary to school, which is where other kids were able to read it, but except for that element, this novel has the believability of events that seem as if they really could happen to girls in this age group (unlike Swinging Sideways, whose occurrences are over-the-top and extremely unlikely to parallel those of most readers). After Cassie and Fiona have their falling-out, school ends for the year and Cassie takes off on a summer adventure that Terra Elan McVoy previously wrote about in Drive Me Crazy, to which This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker is a companion (not a sequel: the books take place at essentially the same time). With Cassie gone, Fiona has to face her own family problems, which tie to her parents’ divorce. Fiona’s younger sister, Leelu, is fine with their dad and his girlfriend, but Fiona is not, and she ratchets up the drama in her own mind to such an extent that she opts for a summer writing workshop rather than a family trip to Disneyland. This turns out to be a good decision: she makes new friends among the other would-be writers and comes to terms with what happened between herself and Cassie. Reader reactions to Fiona herself will be central to their feelings about the book as a whole. Fiona can sometimes be rather annoying and unsympathetic, and her interest in a writing seminar, a linchpin of the plot, seems rather forced (although not to the very overdone extent of events in Swinging Sideways), even though it is tied to her keeping of that fateful diary. Once Fiona is in the seminar, though, her decision to get back at the girls in the humiliating-diary incident by writing them into her stories makes sense. And Fiona does seem to grow in believable real-world ways without McVoy needing to resort to the sort of extreme events favored by Steveson. Neither of these books is really new – very similar plots have been done many times before, by many authors. But both have their appeal: Steveson’s to those seeking emotional release through weepy melodrama and McVoy’s to those searching for possible role models to help them through their own difficulties in trying to negotiate middle-school angst.