Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Close to Famous, by Joan Bauer

Foster and her mother are fleeing from Mom's ex-boyfriend (an abusive Elvis impersonator) when they end up in Culpepper, West Virginia. The town's seen better days (the local jam and jelly factory has been shut down and the only large amployer in town is a prison), but they find a home there.

Foster has a lot of things working against her (her codependent mothetr, illiteracy, and a fear of failure), but she also has perseverence, a strong memory, and incredible baking skills. So, it's her way in a kitchen (and the baked goods she produces) that will make a difference in her world. As she improves her own lot, she also inspires a boy who dreams of becoming a documentary filmmaker and an actress who has slipped into life as a recluse.

Bauer has a great formula, taking young women with a particular talent and showing take that skill places. Previously, we've seen it in waitressing (Hope Was Here), pumpkin growing (Squashed), and shoe sales (Rules of the Road), among others. It's a narrative that provides ample opportunity to show growth and achieve a feel-good ending. And it tends to work best when the story fixates on the plot.

Unfortunately, it's a lack of focus which really does this in. Bauer is fond of subplots and this book is drowning in them. In fact, it really isn't clear what is the main story. Is it Foster's culinary talent (hard to see it when there's no contest or climax to the baking story)? Is it Foster's struggle with literacy (that one's left unfinished and unresolved)? Throw in crazy Elvis dude, the manic actress, and the boy and it all feels rather random and unplotted.

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