As an aspiring novelist, I have a semi-psychotic relationship with contemporary books.
Obviously I love reading. And there are plenty of books I enjoy “well enough”–unique, entertaining reads I wouldn’t mind recommending. These are books about which I can’t complain. But there’s also not much I-wish-I’d-gotten-there-first about them, either. For me, Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers and Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls fall in that category.
Then there are the books that have my husband making this face:
Why? Because for
weeks days, I’ll periodically burst into a rant about how terrible Book X was. How unappealing the characters. How poorly researched. How unbelievable the conclusion. I’ll now confess that my husband was right (I really hope he doesn’t read this): the fury I felt over the ending of Veronica Roth’s Divergent Trilogy was perhaps disproportional (though not nearly so much as that of those making death threats over it). But I’ll save my Allegient thoughts for a future post.
The worst part of experiencing the above category of books (from which I generally exempt the Divergent Trilogy) is the question left buzzing in my brain afterward:
“How did this get a publishing contract?”
But then there’s the third category of books: the ones that hit me with the pleasantest one-two punch combo I’ll ever experience.
First Response (said breathlessly): I wish I’d written that book.
Second Response: I’m glad she did. If I’d written it, it’d be different. And I wouldn’t want to change one thing.
There are the obvious classic candidates for this category: Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Sense and Sensibility, Crime and Punishment, etc. My contemporary nominations for this exclusive club make a more motley crew: Annette Curtis Klaus’s Blood and Chocolate, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted. (C’mon, who in my age bracket didn’t fangirl that book when it came out?).
One of my recent inductees to this club is Lauren DeStefano’s YA trilogy, The Chemical Garden Series. Book #3 (Sever) fell apart for me a bit. But Book #1, Wither, took me by surprise. DeStefano’s series doesn’t have the flashbang intensity of other members of the dystopian family like The Hunger Games or Divergent. But that’s what I liked about it. It was such a quietly desperate novel whose beautifully eerie prose evidenced DeStefano’s careful attention to the craft of writing.
Don’t mistake me. I am not a writing-style snob. I believe the clipped, quick prose that privileges story over syntax is a writing style, and one with a purpose. The Harry Potters, Divergents, and Hunger Games of the world sweep us off via their stories; words are the chiseled-down tools that promote plot to center-stage. That tale-centric vigor is the primary appeal of such books.
But because I strive for visual impact in my own writing, I was utterly seduced by the sleeper quality of this novel marrying a haunting concept with prose that interlaced morbidity and beauty. (This aesthetic quality is mirrored in the series’ covers, which I adore; my husband accused them of being creepy.) While not without a high-stakes plot, Wither maintains a dark, dreamy quality that is nearly meditative.
Which is why I respect DeStefano’s choice not to renew the optioning of Wither for film adaptation. Initially, I was disappointed. After all, I stumbled across this news while Googling the possibility of a Chemical Gardens film; it was such a visually stunning read, I thought “What could be better than bringing it on-screen?”
But DeStefano knows her work well and I have to agree with her expressed reason for holding Wither back from Hollywood stardom:
“I don’t feel that Wither is a big Hollywood story.”
~ Lauren DeStefano
Its intimately meditative, character-focused nature is one of its finest qualities, and stripping that out, or amping up the action, could leave the story hollow.
And there’s something refreshing about an author who, in the midst of a publishing world driven by multi-media marketing, steps away from a such an opportunity to hold a firm line on what is right for her and her book.
It’s a courageous kind of conviction to which I have to give a respectful nod.