Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Build-Up, and the Flinch

Jodi Lynn Anderson, The Vanishing Season

Young adult novels with female protagonists generally end one of two ways: either she triumphs, then ventures forth on the next leg of her adventure, or she dies. The romanticized death, whether meaningful like in John Green, or apparently random in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, is a beloved trope in literature for teen girls. Death, in teenage fiction, is both ennobling and redemptive. For whatever reason.

I won’t reveal who Jodi Lynn Anderson kills, partly because the death has complex ramifications, and partly because many young women die herein. I will say, this death happens with such whiplash abruptness, I have difficulty processing it, much less making it fit with anything that happened before. I like these characters, and their strange, unhasty development, so much that, when Anderson kills one, it feels both unmotivated and disappointing.

When hard times force Maggie Larsen’s family to abandon their Chicago home for touristy Door County, Wisconsin, she resists its languorous rural pace. But strangely bohemian Pauline Boden and her, ahem, “special friend” Liam Witte open Maggie’s eyes to unseen dramas seething invisibly beneath Door County’s bucolic surface. Soon they form a triangle reflecting the passions unique to young people, unencumbered by life’s tedious compromises.

But Maggie’s appearance strangely corresponds with the debut of the Door County Killer. Some enigmatic force is kidnapping teenage girls; their bodies appear, usually floating in Lake Michigan, days later, with no signs of struggle. The Killer targets older teens with public personalities and long hair, girls much like Maggie and Pauline. So their budding explorations of looming adulthood happen with the explosive happiness that only blooms in death’s shadow.

Door County, Wisconsin, along Lake Michigan
Midwesterners will recognize the tourist-driven splendor of Door County, a Norman Rockwell region on Lake Michigan’s western shore. We’ve seen towns, mostly along water, that flare up seasonally, celebrating summer with local cuisine and World’s Fair-ish willful quaintness. But Anderson’s winter narrative spotlights her summer location’s bleak underside. Her characters live in a festive destination’s dark, unattractive side, like the dispirited workers operating carnival rides.

Maggie, Pauline, and Liam love one another with the kind, disinhibited love available only to youths without careers, mortgages, and community standing. They live entirely in the now, passionately sharing one another because their selves are all they have. Their triangle turns romantic only very late (romance is explicit; sex is somewhat ambiguous). Though the girls feud over Liam, their real love, packed with simmering violence, is for each other.

Knowing the Killer stalks their futures, though, their passions have an unspoken desperate air. Maggie and Liam share their first kiss after arson partly destroys his home. Off-season community gatherings, like November’s Turkey Gobble and February’s Valentine Social, have a frantic mandatory festivity reflecting Door County’s shared grief. Our ménage à protagonists feel deeply because, implicitly, they know they may never feel anything again. “Playing it safe” doesn’t exist herein.

Hovering over events, a nameless ghost seems strangely attached to Maggie. We know nothing about this spirit, who narrates in first person, because it has existed so long, it no longer remembers itself. While our heroes discover life, with all its incipient violence, the ghost discovers itself, only to realize, too late to avert the disaster, just what connection it bears to events. Anderson reminds us constantly: death is coming.

Which makes it only more frustrating when death finally arrives. Anderson spends such time priming readers for the two converging narratives, our passionate triangle and the Door County Killer, that she derails us violently when the final answer is: none of the above. The ending (I cannot call it “conclusion”) feels grafted on from another novel, as though, exhausted from her exquisite high-tension build-up, Anderson got tired and just quit.

Anderson creates savory anticipation, so powerful that this middle-aged, Dad-like reviewer fell in love with Maggie; as Oscar Wilde wrote, “the suspense is killing me, I hope it lasts.” And then, eh, nothing. For 250 pages, Anderson creates this celebration of youthful life, and this encroaching phantom of death, cueing us to await a spectacular collision. Her actual ending, though, ducks what she’s built, leaving both threads unresolved.

I cannot tell audiences to avoid this book. I really, really enjoyed Anderson’s storytelling, right up until she dramatically flinched. I loved Anderson’s narrative, until it hit a brick wall. But many celebrated authors, like Joseph Conrad and Thomas Pynchon, have difficulty writing justified, satisfying endings. Jodi Lynn Anderson joins their number. Unfortunately, you cannot have Anderson’s beautifully executed build-up without her strangely unmotivated end.

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