review of a book I can’t find

Where is my (library) copy of Blythe Woolston’s The Freak Observer? I finished it day before yesterday, so it can’t be too many layers down. But I’ve checked the bathroom, by the bed, my backpack, the kitchen counter, and in the sofa cushions. I suppose it might be at work.

The book is about a grieving girl starting to put her life back together, while things keep happening around her. You know, just life things, things that happen especially when you’re a teenager and can’t control that much around you, as far as people moving and school grinding on and your family trying to make ends meet.

I agree with this review at A Chair, A Fireplace, & A Tea Cozy that it feels good to read a book where working-class feels real. Shift work, jobs held and then lost and then replaced by other jobs, none of them great, hoping that enough family members have enough jobs among them at any one time to keep things going. Loa calculates what things cost in relation to wages and her family’s time. Her description of her part-time job at the nursing-home cafeteria is wonderful. Exactly what she has to do, how much of it there is, and it has to be done a certain way. It’s the kind of job knowledge and sheer endurance that isn’t respected or compensated, but is nonetheless accrued with a lot of time and work and hopefully lets you keep your job even if you’re still in high school. The last book I read with that working-class feel was on my 2009 list, David Gifaldi’s Listening for Crickets. They’re more rare than you might think.

There are a lot of science and art references in the book, and they hit a nice balance for me too. Loa didn’t have the “I’m only sixteen but I live for science (or painting, or whatever)” trope. That trope is a guilty pleasure of mine, but I think it’s one that appeals to my inner teenager and is actually a fiction. Things hit Loa hard, but it can be all different things. Also, I didn’t feel pressured, as a reader, to buy into some “let’s present a science metaphor and all express awe at it oh wow and now let’s congratulate ourselves for being deep and sensitive” *cough* Madeleine L’Engle *cough* thing. It was just stuff, albeit rich stuff. If you’ve read the book, you can see some of the art at the author’s website. And other cool tangential material; Woolston is a professional indexer and it kind of shows!

I liked Loa herself a lot, and that’s where the book is a little frustrating to me, at least on first reading. Loa is grieving, and I think on the taciturn side anyway. (Props for this not coming off as the frozen-ness that marks a lot of Sarah Dessen protagonists, for instance, and that I think is a bit of a false-depth device. Loa is also honest and hilarious, which helps a lot.) It took about 35 pages for me to hook in and care about her. The story opens with multiple layers of trauma that still aren’t the main trauma in Loa’s life, and I rattled around in it all.

On the other hand, by the end I really appreciated that the changes and resolutions didn’t fix or even address the Big Everything issues. Some smaller things got straightened out, and showed almost incidentally that Loa was changing and healing. When I find the book again, I want to go back to the beginning and see if it strikes me differently.

I have a feeling this book may stick in my head for awhile. It won the Morris Award for best debut novel, so I’ll definitely be watching for more from the author.