I liked The Thief. Gen, the main character, is smart and smart-assed, and I appreciate those two qualities in a narrator. He doesn’t talk down to his audience, and neither does Turner. This really is a YA book that any adult might enjoy.
Gen has been thrown into prison for having the ill-advised audacity to boast that he could steal the king’s seal, then actually doing it, and then showing it around the local tavern to prove that he did it. You have to appreciate that kind of cheek. He is taken out of prison by a magus who hopes Gen is thief enough to steal Hamiathes’ Gift, a mythical stone that gives a ruler indisputable sovereignty over his/her country. The setting is roughly an altered ancient Greece.
The plot is set in motion by the myth of Hamiathes’ Gift, but it is also a clever play on stories and storytelling– and I mean storytelling in two senses. One is the recounting of events to create a story, and the other is simply creating fictions, or lies. A few people in this book are not who they seem to be, and I liked that the revelations of identity uncover new layers of meaning in the book. They’re not just gimmicky twists.
Turner is clearly a careful plotter: she skillfully makes room for a sequel by weaving strands of a larger plotline into the fabric of Gen’s quest, and not simply by leaving questions unanswered at the end of the book. The Thief is at once a satisfyingly self-contained story that is also, potentially, a serviceable prologue to three books that follow. I have not yet read these three sequels, but I’m pretty sure it’ll happen.
I also read Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl this past week. My feelings for this book are more complicated. I enjoyed it, but I wanted to like it more than I did.
The story is narrated by Leo, a high school student who lives in a town where everyone is pretty much the same. He likes it that way. He knows where he fits in. When Stargirl moves to town, he is at first confused by her, then utterly fascinated by her, and then in love with her. Stargirl is unlike anyone he’s ever met. Actually, she’s unlike anyone anyone in town has ever met. She wears strange clothes, but no make-up. She has eerily enormous eyes. She dances in the rain. She sings “Happy Birthday” to people in the school cafeteria, while playing the ukelele. She delivers anonymous, homemade cards to townspeople. She becomes brilliantly popular for being different, right before she becomes abysmally unpopular for the same reason.
I thought Stargirl’s popularity arc, and the way students react to her, were well-drawn and true to life. Leo’s characterization is excellent. His fascination with Stargirl conflicts with his desire to be popular in a way that many of us have felt even as adults. In Leo, Spinelli has created a character who is understandable and lovable, but who also made me cringe with his spinelessness. Ironically, my problem with the book is primarily with Stargirl. Leo spends some time at the beginning of the story trying to figure out if Stargirl is “real.” As in, she’s so wacky, he wonders whether she’s an actor, or whether the faculty has planted her as an experiment. He wonders whether she is sincere in her unconventionality, or whether she’s completely affected. Stargirl is sincere, but as a character, she has no depth. As Leo says of her, “All of her feelings, all of her attentions flowed outward. She had no ego.” Stargirl seems completely unselfconscious and completely devoid of personal conflict. Her only concern seems to be making others happy. This is meant to be an admirable quality, but I found it wholly unrealistic. Stargirl ends up being a symbol instead of a person, and I found it very difficult to become emotionally attached to a symbol. I never found Stargirl to be “real.”
Now, I’m oversimplifying somewhat in order to get my point across. For at least a moment in the book, Stargirl does seem to have some personal conflict, and there are hints that she has a past and a future that might round her out a little, but we see her only from Leo’s point of view, and Leo is not always the most insightful kid on the block. Which is also likely intentional, because otherwise Stargirl would not present such an enigma to him.
But I still think Stargirl could have been a much more interesting character if her unconventionality were not so cliché. She dresses differently. She dances in the rain. She has a pet rat that goes everywhere with her. Everything about her is over the top, sometimes obnoxiously so. At one point, the requisite bitchy popular girl demands that Stargirl NOT sing “Happy Birthday” to her in the cafeteria. Now, yeah, this girl is a bona fide bitch. But embarrassing someone in public isn’t kind, even if it wasn’t your intention to be so. We’re supposed to think Bitchy Popular Girl is a grinch simply because she doesn’t want to be sung to in public. Is it so unusual to be the person who DOESN’T want the Mariachi guys in a Mexican restaurant to bring out a flaming cupcake and sing to you in the middle of the restaurant? At another point in the book, we’re supposed to feel moved by Stargirl’s empathy when she attends, uninvited, the funeral of a classmate’s family member. The classmate’s mother yells at Stargirl to get out, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for Stargirl’s wounded expression. Again, I found her actions to be disrespectful. It really never occurred to her that you shouldn’t crash funerals?
I loved the point of the book. I love that it teaches readers to tolerate and even embrace the unconventional; this is an especially important lesson for kids, who can be so afraid of being socially “tainted” by their acquaintances. And maybe my misunderstanding of the book stems from the fact that it was in fact written for kids, who sometimes need a big, shiny, hit-you-in-the-face symbol to get a point across. But there are ways of teaching Stargirl’s lessons with more nuance and depth.