Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Children's Book Hiatu: Empire Falls

So far in my children's books hiatus, I've read Richard Russo's Empire Falls, and I decided the basic difference between adult novels and YA novels is that more happens off camera. I'm on to The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, which is ten times snappier, but still: much is relayed to you after the fact or by a third party. It doesn't happen before your very eyes. It's more about the process of discovering what has already happened than about what's happening right now.

But I shouldn't really make sweeping judgments. I'm sure there are thousands of examples to the contrary. I just think that teens live in the moment and adults are always trying to figure out their past, and it shows in their books.

I sort of like that slow revelation sort of plot line, but I do get an itchy feeling: I'm always thinking: this better be worth it. Because if the revelation isn't stunning enough, then the long development feels like a waste of my time. So was Empire Falls worth it?

Well, pretty much.

For those who haven't read it, it's about a dying mill town in Maine--specifically about a recently divorced, crazy-about-his-teenage-daughter Catholic dude who manages a diner for a controlling rich woman who owns half the town. The tension comes from wondering what she's planning next and figuring out why she's always half-thwarting, half-saving our main character.

The revelations are spread through out the book, and the plot is nicely symmetrical and economical: no wasted gestures or characters. And the author's memories of high school aren't romanticized, nor does he waste time categorizing everyone in the lunch room.

My only hesitation comes from the fact that as soon as Todd Strasser has written a book on a topic, it's dead for me, which means school shootings ceased to impress me a few years ago. But that's a small complaint.

The real pleasure of reading adult books for a time is that they last longer--they're engrossing. I can read on my couch for hours on a Sunday afternoon, and there's still more left on Monday. The book takes over my whole week, gets overlaid on my everyday, and gives me something to think about when I'm driving or waiting in line at the post office. Sort of like having an affair, maybe? Like cheating on reality? That's the thing about hardcore readers: you're never sure if they're really with you, because they live in two worlds at once.

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