Thursday, June 26, 2008

Book Review: The Sweet Far Thing, by Libba Bray


To those of us who are adult fans of YA lit: think back to years ago. Do you remember what it meant to be seen reading a Young Adult book? It was...OK, I guess, as long as you were sufficiently and demonstratively sheepish about it. Harry Potter was an exception, as was any book you read back in elementary or middle school and were re-reading for "purely sentimental/nostalgic reasons" (right).

Well, The Sweet Far Thing reminded me of why, exactly, that has been the way of things in the world of books: because run-of-the-mill YA books geared towards females are often embarrassingly sappy, condescending, and mediocre.

I read the first two books in the trilogy (A Great and Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels) and was mildly intrigued by them. Enough to read the third book, anyway, as you see. I'm not generally a fan of books involving magic, but then, I do love Harry Potter and I wouldn't say I'm generally a fan of books about vampires, either. But The Sweet Far Thing was utterly disappointing to me. It read like one of those Sweet Valley High novels. At least, that's my best shot at a comparison since I was never allowed to read Sweet Valley High. And for good reason, if this book is any indication.

There were elements of the first two books that bothered me, but the third book really had me rolling my eyes. Here is a book that pushes all the pre-teen-and-teenaged-girl buttons but delivers no real-world consequences, or delivers them very weakly. When you consider that the book is supposed to have taken place at the end of the 19th century, the actions of some of the girls and the consequences of their decisions are even more unbelievable.

What kinds of "buttons" am I talking about? Let's see.
- the main character, a young woman, feels suffocated by society's expectations and can't wait to break free from her mundane, disciplined life. Also, she is teased a lot by her older brother and can't wait to put him in his place. Also, she is not very good at school subjects and doesn't make friends very easily. She has yet to grow into her awkward, changing body.

- another young woman character is poor, overweight, friendless, spineless, and dumpy, but she has an awesome singing voice. If only she could build up the courage to show all those who doubt her what she's really made of!

- another young woman character is on the brink of being forced into a marriage to obtain wealth for her family. During the course of the third book, out of NOWHERE, this character is revealed to be a lesbian. What the?!?!?!??!? I can only imagine this was the author's token sacrifice on the altar of misguided teen feminism. I can think of tasteful ways this plot event could have been handled, but shoving it in the book whether it fit or not is not one of them.

- back to the main character - she is in love with the one guy her parents would never want her to marry (for various time-period- and society-related reasons), and even though it's 19th-century Victorian England, she does stuff like make out with him in the laundry shack. This was another "What the!?!??!?!?" moment for me, but it was definitely overshadowed by the one mentioned above.

- anyone who hated the fate of Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean 3 will also hate the ending of this book. But you know what? Anyone who kind of liked the ending of that movie (myself included) will also hate the ending of this book. Because it's been done before (by POTC3) and better (POTC3) and more sensibly (by POTC3).

- most of the characters are so selfish and unlikeable that by the end, I wanted {character} to be forced into that marriage, if only to teach her a lesson. Or to show us modern readers what would have actually happened given the status of young women in that time period (hint: it is probably not opening a fashion boutique in Paris and living a fun, openly lesbian lifestyle).

Finally, I can't quite figure out where the YA category went wrong. On the one hand, you see all the elements above that seem to cater exclusively to pre-teen and teenaged girls' fantasies. But on the other hand, there were far, far too many adult themes - and let's face it, scenes - throughout the book for me to ever be comfortable having my daughter read it. So who is the audience here, exactly? I'm really not sure.

I have a feeling I'm going to have to wade through a lot of junk when my daughter(s) are old enough to be interested in books like these. I don't remember books having so much potentially objectionable content back when I was a pre-teen reader, unless you count Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. (Just kidding.) (Kind of.) So either the books have changed, or my mom just did an exceptionally good job of weeding out the rotten eggs. Like those Sweet Valley High books, for instance...


Sarah Rose Evans said...

Yeah, I've been delving into YA novels myself and I've found a lot of age inappropriate material in them. Do all teenagers have rocking sex lives and alcohol/drug habits? It doesn't seem very realistic.

Alyson P. said...

Agreed. I didn't even read the whole thing because it started so slow and wasn't taking off. I skipped the middle and read the last few chapters. REALLY disappointed. The first two weren't so bad but this one totally tanked.

Alyson P. said...

Oh, and I read SVH books. (Should I be embarrassed?) I didn't think there was anything bad in them but if there was I probably just didn't understand it!

Kristen said...

HA! This reminds me of a family memory...My sister and our cousin close to her age loved to read those risque romance novels: you know, their covers always depicted a flowy-haired man with half a shirt grasping a woman whose corset was struggling to contain her ample bosom. So my cousin's mom would read them first and--get this--black out with sharpie the inappropriate words, or were the offensive material an entire scene? White mailing labels to cover all. I remember my sister trying to peel off those labels. So there is your future with Miriam.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Sweet Valley High books--they weren't on my list of quality literature so that's why we didn't have them around.

Josette said...

That's a passionate review of The Sweet Far Thing! :D

yeah, I didn't see the lesbian thing coming. And I didn't like the part where Felicity told Gemma that there'd be others like her in Paris! That was unnecessary. I mean, she couldn't be completely lesbian, right? perhaps she was strongly attracted to Pippa only. Hmm, it doesn't seem right to me anyway.

But despite its flaws, I enjoyed the trilogy. :) Here's my review of The Sweet Far Thing.


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