Friday, May 23, 2014

Book Review: The Vast Fields of Ordinary


I saw this one on my library's YA shelves, read the summary inside the front flap, and decided that I desperately wanted to read it.  Now that I'm done, though, I can't for the life of me remember why I was so convinced that it was going to be awesome.

The front flap reads: "It's Dade Hamilton's last summer before college. He has a crappy job at Food World, a 'boyfriend' who won't publicly acknowledge his existence (maybe because Pablo also has a girlfriend, one of the most popular girls in school), and parents on the verge of a break-up."  All of this is accurate.  Except that I never felt like Pablo was actually Dade's "boyfriend;" they never had an actual emotional connection at all--they just fooled around a lot.  And that definitely cheapened the story.  And Dade's parents truly were a hot mess.  But Dade was apparently emotionally stunted by a lifetime of living with them or something, because he seemed completely incapable of working up any kind of emotion (other than annoyance) about their situation--which did NOT make him a very likable character.

Front flap continued: "Add to all this the case of Jenny Moore, a nine-year-old whose disappearance has gripped his Iowa town, and Dade's main goal is just to survive until he leaves for school."  The Jenny Moore thing could have been really intriguing.  But it only popped up at random moments throughout the book and never turned into an actual storyline or major plot point of its own.  Instead it largely functioned as a symbol--and a poorly done one at that.

More from the front flap: "Then he meets the mysterious Alex Kincaid, a dreamy-eyed misfit with all the wrong friends.  Alex breathes new life into the suburban wasteland that Dade can't wait to escape--"  Okay.  That's a very intriguing description.  I admit, it totally sucked me in.  But after reading the book, I need to make a few corrections.  Alex is not actually "mysterious" or a "misfit." He is a drug dealer.  And he also works at Taco-Taco.  There is nothing "mysterious" about either of those things.  But his life is going nowhere, and apparently that seems attractive to the college-bound Dade.  Also, I don't think that Dade's world is exactly a "suburban wasteland."  It's true that he lives in a very nice upper-class neighborhood and has awkward, conversation-less dinners at the country club with his dad, and that this material-filled life has caused a great chasm in his parents' marriage.  There's plenty of room for commentary on that.  But I think "suburban wasteland" is rather an overstatement.

The end of the front flap: "--but real love, like truth, has consequences, and its power soon sets in motion a tragic chain of events that will change Dade's life forever."  And considering how the novel ends, I think this last line of the teaser is a total load of crap.  I did actually like the relationship between Dade and Alex (in spite of Alex's drug-dealer tendencies, which I did NOT like), but considering how they ended up, I think the "real love" bit is ridiculous.  And secondly, I'm not sure where the reference to "truth" is coming from, because Dade doesn't engage in much of that.... while he tends to think of himself as some self-aware poet, in actuality, he spends the majority of the novel getting drunk and/or high and then passing out in chaise lounges by his pool in order to avoid his problems.  So it's not like he's on a noble quest for truth or something.  He is a master of the avoidance technique from beginning to end and learns absolutely nothing from the struggles he faces in this novel--except, apparently, how to avoid his problems ever more skillfully.  Dade's avoidance techniques do, in fact, set in motion that "tragic chain of events," but I don't think that Dade's life is particularly changed by them.... at the end of the novel, he just up and leaves for college--which was the plan all along.  The last few pages show him at college, totally happy to be starting over and living a brand-new life.  So basically I got the feeling that he learned absolutely nothing from what happened over the summer.

The front flap also makes no mention of Lucy, the lesbian friend who conveniently moves in down the street from Dade for the summer.  She wasn't a terribly convincing lesbian, but she was a good friend and added really the only bright spot to the entire novel.

Aside from not measuring up to its description, my major complaint with this novel was its lack of plot.  I was about halfway through it when I realized that there really was no major plot or action to speak of.  It's just the story of Dade's last summer at home.  Maybe the story of Dade's coming out.  It had the potential to be more--a mystery over Jenny Moore's disappearance, a battle between Pablo and Alex--but it just never developed.

So I didn't like the story, and I didn't like the main character, but you know what I DID like?  Nick Burd's writing.  This was his debut novel, and in spite of its many flaws, I thought that his writing was great.  His dialogue flowed naturally, his descriptions were vivid, and I lost myself in his words.  In spite of my frustrations with this particular story, I hope to see more from him in the future.

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