Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Year I Stopped Trying, by Katie Heaney

If you're an overachiever, you probably have not spent much time thinking about the possibility of not putting everything into your work, but what do you really think would happen if you failed to do so?  For Mary, the idea seems terrifying and she would consider doing less than her best.  But when she somehow manages to forget to write a paper for her AP History class and nothing immediately happens, the experience is revelatory.

Seeing how little anyone cares that she's missed an assignment inspires her to expand on the experience by simply stopping doing any work at all.  As a good student with a reputation for being a hard worker, it takes a while for her teachers to even notice.  Once they do, most of them are so confused that they don't know what to do about her change.

Stopping working isn't enough for Mary.  She starts thinking about what else she could do to "wreck" her life.  She's never dated, but she's heard it said that getting involved in a romance can hurt your academics, so why not test that theory?  She ends up with ex-stoner Mitch, with whom she enjoys riding around town in aimless cruising, but nothing else ever happens.  She knows what she's supposed to do (kiss, make-out, and everything else connected with having a boyfriend), but she doesn't really want to do that either.  Having discovered the joys of underachieving, having a romance seems like too much work as well.

It's a hard book to describe and my synopsis probably makes Mary sound a bit hard to stomach, but she's actually one of the fresher voices in YA lit -- witty, very funny, and a completely original thinker. Like a modern Holden Caulfield, she's questioning the expectations that she's had laid out for her:

Everything I do--almost everything, anyway--I do to prevent a later guilt over not having done it....Nobody told me I had to wake up at exactly 5:35, but I know that when I hit snooze (which I've only done twice in my life), I wake up feeling like the laziest scumbag on planet Earth.  It passes soon enough when I complete the next available requirement, but the sting is acute, and apparently self-created.

Such a precocious acknowledgement and rebellion against the Protestant Work Ethic can seem like a premature mid-life crisis (or perhaps a bout of clinical depression) but presented in her lively prose is a joy to read.  This is a fun book to read.  Yes, her voice is often too wise for her age, but we'll give the author some leeway there because her observations are so totally on the mark.  Mary has a good head on her shoulders and she makes an inspiring role model as someone who is going to end up with a decent work-life balance as an adult.  While intended for teens, this is truly a YA book that adults can really enjoy, perhaps with the regret of never having been so cool when we were seventeen.

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