Sunday, December 19, 2010

How It Ends, by Laura Wiess

A book this complicated is tricky to summarize, but in an odd way, the book's cover (with its simple image of a dead leaf) somehow manages to symbolize this story's tale of death (with a promise of rebirth) quite well. There are at least three stories here.

First, there is the story of an elderly childless couple (Helen and Lon) and Helen's close relationship with Hanna - the daughter of the next door neighbors. There is the poignant sense of loss as Helen watches Hanna grow up and away from their friendship and wander off more often with her friends rather than spend time with "Gran." It's a beautiful tale and would have stood up on its own as a short story (sort of a geriatric Toy Story 3).

Then there is the story of Hanna's infatuation with Seth, a guy at school. It's the sort of bad news lust that is so strong that it causes her to ignore all the warning signs that Seth is not good for her. Meanwhile, in the background, there are plenty of friends (and even a good guy) lurking in the background waiting for her to come to her senses. Even Gran might have a word or two of advice. It's a bit of a tired story, but would have made a cute one if the elder woman had been there playing Dear Abby.

Those two stories would have made a nice, but fairly inconsequential YA novel -- pleasant, but largely forgettable. Wiess however has far greater intentions when she introduces a third story: a far nastier tragedy about an orphan girl and her immigrant Dutch lover. And this storyline, while it weaves very far off from the other two, probably has far more important things to say. For High Schoolers, there's plenty of eye-opening gender history here: about the abuse of gynecology and female patients, about animal and human cruelty, and about the bad old days when sexism was more overt. With a strong debt to Susan Griffin and Andrea Dworkin (although neither is directly credited, so maybe it is unintentional), Wiess brings up a litany of prior abuses that will shock the uninitiated. And if it causes a few teens to crack open some women's studies classics, so much the better.

This last thread is naturally the most potent part of the whole, but it seemed very poorly stitched to the rest. Yes, there's some attempt to explain that Helen feels guilty about her past and there's a bit more of an attempt to use this lesson in feminist history to inspire some gender consciousness raising in Hanna (don't let that bad guy treat you in the same shitty way that men have treated women for centuries!), but it doesn't really work for me. Seth is just a pimply adolescent asshole, not a misogynistic gynecologist or a sadistic Nazi. So, the story threads hang very loosely together and maybe not at all. This is frustrating as there are really two or three decent books here. The problem comes when Wiess tries to bring them altogether as one.

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