Sunday, January 11, 2009
Morris Shortlist: Absolute Brightness
2008; HarperTeen; 978-0-06-125627-1 (hardcover)
Summary: When Leonard Pelkey arrives in Neptune, New Jersey, he stands out. Flamboyant and dramatic, no one really seems to know what to make of him, including Phoebe, his almost-cousin. But when Leonard disappears, and is later found dead, Phoebe is left to wonder at the changes he made in her life.
Fair Warning: I'm breaking my normal review policy--namely, not reviewing books I disliked--in order to complete my series of Morris Award shortlist reviews.
My Humble Thoughts on Why This Book Shouldn't Have Been Shortlisted for the Morris Award
#1: A confusing, meandering plot.
With judicious editing, Absolute Brightness could have been an intriguing exploration of tolerance and how an outsider changes a place. However, this 469 page tome packs in too many unneeded plot threads and digressions to achieve such a goal. It's just far too sprawling with tangents that don't pay off, like the allegations that Deirdre, Phoebe's sister, was abused by their father. In addition, James Lecesne wastes opportunity for natural conflict and drama by having events happen off-screen, like Deirdre's haircut, or by not giving enough structure and lead-up for turning points. When Phoebe, near the end of the novel, says that she sees Leonard all the time, the reader is left scratching their head. Is this a metaphor? Has Phoebe been seeing images of Leonard? Where was Phoebe's reaction to such an unusual occurrence? We don't know because Phoebe's statement about seeing Leonard seems to come out of left field. The extra plot points and a tell not show approach removes much of the power from Lecesne's story.
#2: Factual errors and a muddied setting.
Having lived in New Jersey for a year, I couldn't help but be rattled by the changes from New Jersey geography that were made in Absolute Brightness. While these are trivial changes, they seem unnecessary, made for no clear reason. Referring to the Turnpike when the Parkway would be the actual roadway, having Phoebe visit a department store that is now known as a different chain--they're not important in the bigger picture, I know. But misstatements like a character pumping their own gas (something that has been outlawed in New Jersey since 1949) seem to speak to a carelessness in creating a time period for this novel. The novel is rife with references--Winona Ryder, Save the Whales, platforms--that do not seem consistent with a modern setting. Even more, this story seems like it would have worked much better set in the early to mid 1980s, rather than the late 2000s. Adding in more sloppy editing, like a binder that changes colors twice, both times within the same page, and the reader comes away feeling that a lack of care has been taken with this novel.
#3: Shallow, unconvincing characters.
Leonard is certainly a moving, intriguing character: dynamic, hopeful, and cheerful. Yet with his literal disappearance, much of the character depth is erased. Phoebe is a flat, bland character; with the weight of narrating the novel on her shoulders, the middle of the novel sags dramatically. It's not until the trial of Leonard's killer that the novel regains some momentum. Character motivations often come out of nowhere, like Deirdre's behavior especially at the end of the novel. Coupled with several stock characters--the in-denial mother, the bevy of quirky old ladies, the homewrecking younger woman--the reader quickly misses Leonard and his deeper, yet still somewhat two-dimensional, characterization. The only other character who seems fully-fleshed, in spite of his minor role, is Father Jimbo, and his part is small within the overall novel.
While Absolute Brightness has been well-reviewed, too many problems took me out of this work. With more editing, it could have been a worthwhile selection for the Morris Award shortlist. As is, though, this novel serves as the answer to "What's wrong with this picture?" as one reviews the books included on the shortlist for the Morris Award.