July 03, 2008


Airhead. By Meg Cabot. Point/Scholastic. $16.99.

All We Know of Heaven. By Jacquelyn Mitchard. HarperTeen. $16.99.

The Monk Upstairs. By Tim Farrington. HarperOne. $13.95.

      Here are three books that try, with varying degrees of success, to deal with big issues without tilting completely over into pure absurdity. Airhead gets the absurdity over with early and then handles the consequences: Emerson Watts goes to a major store opening to look after her little sister, Frida, and a bizarre and never-explained accident causes Em’s soul to migrate into the body of teen supermodel Nikki Howard, who is on site as part of the store-opening festivities. This setup makes no sense, and Meg Cabot – author of The Princess Diaries and other books that also make no sense but possess the same quality of transformation – is wise to get past it as quickly as possible. Then she can get to the heart of Airhead, which is: what does Em do now? How will she, in Nikki’s body, handle everything from her (Em’s) understandably distraught family to her (Nikki’s) roommate…err, loftmate? What about school? What about Christopher, on whom she (Em) had a crush even when she (Em) was her old tomboyish self? And who has been spying on her (Nikki’s) E-mails, and why? And how does Stark, the company in whose new store the bizarre brain switch occurred and the company that made the computer on whose her (Nikki’s) E-mails are being compromised, fit into all this? Cabot provides answers here and there, and some doses of amusement because of all the opportunities for mistaken identity (or rather correct but unbelievable identity); but she also holds plenty in reserve, and no wonder – more will surely be told in Being Nikki, the coming sequel to Airhead.

      All We Know of Heaven
tries for more of a “true grit” approach to a heartwrenching story of mistaken identity. The book is based on an event that really happened, but it milks that event (or rather Jacquelyn Mitchard’s fictionalized version of it) for all it is worth and then some. The event is a car crash in which best friends Bridget and Maureen are involved one night, on an icy road. One girl dies and the other ends up in a coma, so severely injured that no one is sure which was which. Eventually, it is determined that Maureen died and Bridget lived – but then that turns out to be wrong, and Maureen is discovered to be the survivor. She emerges from her coma, but has brain damage as well as physical difficulties, and must contend with re-learning life and speech and human interaction…and with the jumble of emotions involving everyone in her small town, including Bridget’s mother and others who feel that the “wrong” girl lived. Slowly, slowly, Maury rebuilds herself, aided immeasurably by a boy named Danny Carmody, with whom she develops a love-or-not-love relationship that, like everything else in Maury’s life, is strongly intertwined with the accident and Bridget’s death. Mitchard loses no opportunity to tug on people’s emotional triggers, and as a result frequently goes too far into complete predictability: if something can be twisted, it is, and if something can be taken the wrong way, it will be. By the conclusion of the book, as the various young characters find ways to get on, tentatively, with becoming adults and living the best lives they can, some readers will surely have wept buckets, while others will likely be grateful that all Mitchard’s obvious emotional ploys have finally come to an end.

and All We Know of Heaven are intended for teen readers, but The Monk Upstairs, although aimed at adults, does not have a very different emotional underpinning. This is a sequel to The Monk Downstairs (well, of course!), in which single mother Rebecca Martin found her life beginning to change when the new tenant in the apartment she was renting out proved to be a monk fleeing into the outside world after 20 years in a monastery. Love bloomed; and that leads, in The Monk Upstairs, to marriage – right at the start of the new novel. After that, love and marriage lead to complications, some of which involve interoffice (or intra-monastery) politics and others of which relate to Mike’s continued and sincere devotion to God and the strains that relationship puts on his marriage to Rebecca. Much of Tim Farrington’s writing style is clever, and it helps save the book from becoming as maudlin as it otherwise might be: “Father Thomas Dougherty turned out to be a burly man wearing floppy rubber boots, jeans, and a black T-shirt with ‘St. Luke’s: A Mission with a mission’ stretched across his barrel chest in an ill-advised red that made the words look like a wound.” But most of the characters are types rather than fully formed individuals, and while Rebecca is well fleshed out, Mike is less so. Farrington gives Mike a superficial rather than deeply thought-through relationship with God, making it surprising that Mike lasted as long as he did in the monastery. Still, Mike discovers (or rediscovers) an ability to bring comfort to people in emotional turmoil, and he and Rebecca do find a way to build their life together, so the overall tone of the book is uplifting. But it is profound neither in matters of faith nor in matters of marriage.

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