Though I’m itching to start reading the books on my 2014 list, there are a bunch of novels from 2013 I didn’t get to last year. Chances are I’ll never get to all of them, but I’ve just finished up two that seemed to have a lot in common: Matthew Quick’s FORGIVE ME, LEONARD PEACOCK and Meg Medina’s YAQUI DELGADO WANTS TO KICK YOUR ASS. Both are contemporary stories of troubled teens whose lives are affected by bullying, violence, and perceived difference. So before turning to my 2014 reviews, I thought I’d officially wrap up 2013 with a dual review of these two fine novels.
At the start of Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, the narrator brings a WWII-era Nazi handgun to school, planning to kill his former best friend and then himself. At the start of Yaqui Delgado, the narrator learns that a classmate at her new school harbors a grudge against her and plans to, well, kick her ass.
From there, both books develop into sensitive, often painful, sometimes funny examinations of contemporary teen life.
Of the two, I slightly favored Quick’s novel. I loved the angry, world-weary voice of Leonard himself, and I loved the narrative device whereby Leonard’s big day is broken up by imagined letters from his future friends and family. I loved Leonard’s strangely poignant (or poignantly strange) habit of following random grownups to work, hoping to find someone whose adult life isn’t as miserable as he feels his teen life is. I loved the language of the text, as in this snippet from one of the future letters:
I know that you really just want everything to end--that you can’t see anything good in your future, that the world looks dark and terrible, and maybe you’re right--the world can definitely be a dreadful place.
I know you’re just barely holding it together. But please hold on a little longer. For us. For yourself. You are going to absolutely love Outpost 37. You’re going to be the keeper of the light.
I wasn't crazy about the story’s resolution, which seemed both overly neat and overly ambiguous. As my wife, a social worker who’s worked with suicidal teens, pointed out, there’s a lot more to teen suicide than this book managed to capture, and maybe the impossibility of capturing it all led to the semi-collapse at the end. Nonetheless, I found Quick’s novel daring, affecting, and ultimately life-affirming.
I didn't connect quite so strongly with Yaqui Delgado, perhaps simply because the dynamics of female bullying aren't as close to my own experience. But I loved the novel's narrator, Piddy, whose entire life begins to collapse around her when the bullying begins. Coupled with her burgeoning sexuality and her contentious relationship with her mother, the targeting by Yaqui and her gang quickly erodes Piddy's sense of self, as the following passage so beautifully illustrates:
Last year? I can barely remember it. That was when I could sleep at night, dreaming of my elephants and the Sahara. I could feel the rhythm of old salsa records in my bones. I could laugh with Mitzi and plan what we would wear. Augustin Sanchez was my mystery father, someone I wanted to know about. Now I can't lift my eyes or walk the way I want. I have no friends. Not even my own father wanted to get to know me. If there is a way to get that smiling girl back, I don't see it.
Bullying is particularly vicious and destructive among teens because their identities are in such a state of fragility and flux to begin with, and Medina's book captures the experience with compassion and unsparing detail.
The year always ends with me wishing I could read more books than I possibly can. But I'm happy I ended 2013 with these two terrific novels.
Now, on to 2014!