Thursday, January 1, 2009

Book of the Semi-Month Club

When I picked up Things Hoped For by Andrew Clements, I was unaware that it's a sequel to a previous book called Things Not Seen. Which, having read this one, I will definitely read as well.

Gwen, seventeen, is a serious violinist from West Virginia. But her dad grew up in Queens, her grandfather still lives there, and for some time now Gwen has lived in New York with Grampa so that she can study with a Russian master and prepare for auditions at Juilliard and other top-flight music schools. When she isn't practicing, which she almost always is, she reads Yeats, Wordsworth, and Jane Austen. The artsy milieu and mature-yet-believable teen voice (no slang or teenspeak here) are right up my alley, and the NYC setting is interesting and exciting.

Now, things do get a little weird. The story opens with a mystery -- Gwen has come home to an answering-machine message from Grampa saying that he's had to go away for a while, and she should just carry on as normal and get ready for those auditions that are coming up fast. Grampa isn't the least bit irresponsible, forgetful or neglectful, and she doesn't know what to make of it. Though she's become a New Yorker in her own right and can handle city life, it's a little disconcerting to effectively be alone in a city of 10 million people. Alone except for Uncle Hank, that is. Hank is Grampa's younger brother and co-owns the brownstone where Grampa and Gwen live, and he's up from Staten Island more and more often to cajole, beg and threaten Grampa to agree to sell. Could Hank be responsible for Grampa's disappearance? Gwen wonders. Or could Grampa have fled because he couldn't face Hank anymore? But that just doesn't seem like Grampa . . . Meanwhile, Gwen goes to school, attends her lessons, practices her violin in the soundproof basement room that Grampa had built for her, and stresses out about what these auditions mean. To her future, they mean everything. A musician friend, only a junior, remarks how senior auditions aren't the end of the world. But they are, Gwen thinks. Because if her auditions aren't brilliant enough to land her in a college program that will lead to a pro career, she will need a whole new world for herself.

Then Gwen meets Robert, a senior from Chicago in NYC for auditions, as talented with the trumpet as she is with the violin. As the two become good friends, Gwen reveals to Robert that Grampa has disappeared. Eventually, Robert reveals a secret of his own: Something happened to him in the recent past that rendered him . . . invisible. Gwen doesn't laugh, but as we might imagine she doesn't take him completely seriously. Yet Robert has been carefully developed as a character so that we DO take him seriously. We WANT to take him seriously. He is too nice a guy to turn out to be whacko.

So now we have "mystery meets fantasy." The plot takes a nerve-wracking turn when Gwen and Robert spot a shadow cast by a person neither can see, and Robert insists they flee. Back at the brownstone, a scene with Uncle Hank allows the invisible man, who has followed Robert, to slip inside. The man announces himself, and after scaring them to pieces, proceeds to horrify them with the story of his life since becoming invisible -- robbing big-name jewelry stores. But now he'd like his visible life back, so he can live on his riches in a normal fashion. Robert's recognition of him in public could only mean Robert has been in his predicament, the man reasons, and somehow became visible again. And the man wants the secret.

Okay, back to mystery. There's no way to say this gently. Grampa is found dead in the freezer. Gwen, Robert, Uncle Hank, and the neighbor upstairs are all automatically suspects, but it's promptly discovered by the medical examiner that Grampa wasn't murdered. Nor did he exactly commit suicide. He realized his death was imminent, as people often do, and he climbed into the freezer in his winter clothes with an oxygen supply to wait for the inevitable. He did this so as not to disrupt Gwen's auditions, reasoning that chances were he would not be discovered until afterwards. All of this, plus an apology for the discovery of his body, is revealed in the police station, through letters Grampa had left. And, to wrap things up nicely, just as Gwen and company are leaving the police station, the unmistakable voice of the invisible man is protesting as he's placed under arrest. Robert has outsmarted him, told the police their wanted jewel thief seems to "think he's invisible," and the cops catch him by tracing his body heat with an infrared camera.

It's a tribute to Clements' skills and the emotional depth of the work that any of this comes together at all. And really, only one part seems to dangle at the end. We have no idea why Robert became invisible or what made him uninvisible; the only clue is that his dad is a physicist who works at the Fermi lab. As fragmented as a recounting of the plot might sound, this book has many pluses, the main ones being, I think, the fine friendship that develops between Gwen and Robert, the promise of friendship with Robert's girlfriend back in Chicago -- yes, he has a girlfriend, they are all friendly and no one has cheated on anyone; it's so refreshing -- and the way in which life has thrown the weirdest obstacles in Gwen's path just prior to her "life and death" auditions and she has managed to prioritize well and negotiate them all. As the book ends, Gwen heads off to the first audition, confident but not overconfident, because "I can play." Yes, she can.


Gottawrite Girl said...

Thanks for the review. And anytime a character stresses and weighs actions against the meaning of life, well, I relate. Call me a chronic worry-er!

Anne Spollen said...


Where do you get a seventeen year old who reads Yeats when she's not practicing her violin?


Marcia said...

GWG -- Yeah, I loved the "How important is this? It's ALL important" dilemma. She was so focused but not cutthroat, and that made her likable.

Anne -- They've got to be somewhere, don't they? I mean, who else is getting into the elite of the elite schools? I love books that affirm these kids do exist, should exist, or at least can be believed to exist by readers willing to stay with the story.

Anne Spollen said...

Yes, they do exist -- I used to teach a writing class for gifted high school kids (before I had my own kids), and that's what those teens were like. Many of them volunteered for church service and feeding the homeless as well. Really wonderful spirits - but these kind of teens are not found too often in YA. Is it that the "issues" kind of kids/stories sell better?

Marcia said...

It may be partly that issue stories sell better. I think it's also believed that kids like this are too few and too apart from "the masses" for YA readers to identify with. When the cry increased for obviously "flawed" characters that readers could feel were no better or no different than them, my disappointment as a reader rose. I always preferred characters that had something I could reach for, not necessarily those "just like me." I love reading about kids like this girl and will gladly gobble up more. I wonder if it was all part of the dumbing down phenom. Also, I wonder if Andrew Clements could have published these books without first making a splash with titles like FRINDLE, one of my all-time favorites. He's got the career to back it up.

Vijaya said...

This book I have to read. I love teen books that have thoughtful, intelligent characters.

Patti Gauch talked about this book a couple of years back ... when I took a workshop with her on historical fiction. She read a scene where the girl is playing her violin and the emotions are so raw ... Oh. My.

I'm so glad you reminded me about this book. My pile is always growing bigger and bigger and some books slip off my radar.

Marcia said...

Patti Gauch talked about it in a historical workshop? Interesting. That's about the only genre the book DOESN'T have. Yes, I love the passion of the violin scenes. My pile is always growing bigger and bigger, too. The more I read, the more I know how much I haven't read.

Thanks for stopping by!

Vijaya said...

I know, Marcia. She said something to that effect, too, but had to share the bits about the music ... If I remember correctly, we were all reading bits and pieces that wove facts with fiction ... and as you know, there can be no fiction without fact.

By the way, I was delighted to see another person who has Reading, Writing & Arithmetic in their title -- I changed mined to Ruminating after realizing that I have very little arithmetic that I'd want to discuss. Loved your W plot post.

Marcia said...

That's terrific that she found those parts so good that she had to share that book even though it seemed a bit off the subject. Come to think of it, if she wants to show a particular skill/art, such as how to evoke emotion, why not pick the best you can find from any type of book?

I love that there's always fact in fiction.

I noticed your blog title! Wow, you had arithmetic, too? As a scientist, you are a math lover, perhaps? :)

Vijaya said...

Yeah, I do love math :)

Marcia said...

Cool! *fellow math lover waves*