Tuesday, October 9, 2012

It don't breakeven... Gayle Forman's WHERE SHE WENT

 RNFF Book Review

After spending six+ hours in a car with a fourteen-year-old this past weekend, I have first-hand evidence that the songs on just about every pop music station are almost always about falling in love. Running a close second, however, are songs about falling out of it. While Neil Sedaka famously crooned that breaking up is hard to do, apparently singing about the end of a relationship is not nearly so tough.

Unlike pop music, popular romance fiction rarely focuses on the breakup, at least a final, absolute breakup between two lovers who truly care for one another. Instead, romance offers the trope of the separated lovers, their relationship broken apart (usually through no fault of their own) sometime in the past, before the action of the novel begins. During the course of the typical separated lovers story, the hero and heroine recognize the signs they misread, or discover the evil figures who tricked them apart (cruel parents, jealous siblings, rival lovers), and mend the breaks that have kept them apart, making them miserable for months (or more often, years).

Young Adult romance* rarely features the separated lovers trope; given the typical age of its protagonists and their relative lack of romantic experience compared to their adult romance brethren, such a finding is not that surprising. To discover a YA romance that dances on the edge between breakup and separated lovers is rare in itself, but to find one that also tells its story from the point of view of the male in the relationship seems well worth looking at from a feminist perspective. Especially when the writing in the book is as good as it is in Gayle Forman's Where She Went.

Back in high school, Adam Wilde and Mia Hall were known as "Groovy and the Geek." Adam wrote songs and played guitar in an emo-core punk band, while Mia devoted herself to classical cello. The story of how two such disparate teens came together, as well as the horrific accident that broke apart Mia's family, is told in Forman's previous novel, If I Stay. Where She Went begins three years later, long after Mia, who moved to New York City to study at Julliard, gradually stopped returning Adam's texts and phone calls. The action of the novel, told in the immediacy of the present tense, unfolds over a single night and day; Adam recounts the events that led up to this day via memories interpolated between the current action.

In the now, Adam's a troubled, alienated rock star, having risen to fame on the strength of the songs he wrote after Mia dumped him (lyrics from that album—Collateral Damage—serve as epigraphs for the book's even-numbered chapters). Both on the verge of leaving for a 3-month tour of Europe and on the verge of a personal breakdown, Adam attempts  to lessen the anxiety caused by the grind of the spotlight, unresolved grief, and an overly inquisitive reporter by walking the streets of the city alone. But instead of finding the solace he seeks, Adam comes across a poster advertising that evening's performance at Carnegie Hall: YOUNG CONCERT SERIES PRESENTS MIA HALL. Deciding to violate "the three-year restraining order she basically put out on me," Adam buys a rush ticket, telling himself he'll be content to hear Mia even if he can't see her (54).

Zankel Hall, at Carnegie Hall
But such is the fame of Shooting Star and its lead songwriter that even the crew at Carnegie Hall recognizes Adam. Instead of signing the expected autographs, though, he finds himself being invited backstage. To see Mia, the girl who told him she loved him more than life itself before she stepped on the plane to New York three years ago. To Mia, the girl who never came back.

Mia, on the verge of departing for her own concert tour to Japan, invites Adam to accompany her on a farewell tour of NYC. But will it also a final farewell to Adam, providing closure to their unofficial breakup, a closure Mia never gave him? During the night and day that follows, Adam and Mia dance painfully along the edge of revelation, the weight of what isn't said far more meaningful than the awkward commonplaces that are all either can initially bring themselves to offer. Later, as Mia gradually begins to tell Adam about her life since leaving him, and her feelings about the accident and her lost family, Adam cannot stop himself from reading each statement as a potential rejection. But finally he allows an unscripted emotion to escape, discovering the courage, or perhaps the anger, to ask Mia why she left.

Forman doesn't offer the typical romance excuses of a misunderstanding, or interfering friends or parents; instead, Mia's heartbreaking answers point to the pain even those we love, and who love us, can cause. Even when (perhaps especially when) they are trying their hardest to help:

     "All I wanted was for you to be okay. All I wanted was to help you. I would've done anything."
     She drops her chin to her chest. "Yes, I know. You wanted to rescue me."
     "Damn, Mia. You say that like it's a bad thing."
     She looks up at me. The sympathy is still in her eyes, but there's something else now, too: a fierceness; it slices up my anger and reconstitutes it as dread.
     "You were so busy trying to be my savior that you left me all alone," she says. "I know you were trying to help, but it just felt, at the time, like you were pushing me away, keeping things from me for my own good and making me more of a victim." (184)

Unwilling to continue to play the victim, Mia makes the (feminist) choice to reject self-sacrifice, even if it means sacrificing her relationship with the man she loves:

"You wrote, 'She says I have to pick: choose you, or choose me. She's the last one standing.' I don't know. When I heard 'Roulette' I just thought you did understand. That you were angry, but you knew. I had to choose me."
     "That's your excuse for dropping me without a word? There's cowardly, Mia. And then there's cruel! Is that who you've become?"
    "Maybe it was who I needed to be for a while." (186-87)

Forman's novel contains many other understated feminist moments. One of my favorites is Adam's dismay at the realization that he's allowed himself to degenerate from being a "Man" to being a mere "Guy": 

     One day she'd told me that they'd decided that my gender was divvied into two neat piles: Men and Guys. Basically, all the saints of the world: Men. The jerks, the players, the wet T-shirt contest aficionados? They were Guys. Back then I was a Man....
     She's right. I am a Guy now. And I can peg the precise night I turned into one. (144-45)

Others include his recognition of what playing music really means, and especially the decision he makes about the direction his career will take once's his finally made his peace with Mia. Needless to say, this is not a book that makes a heroine give up what she loves doing in order to be with her man.

On which side of the breakup/separated lovers divide does Adam and Mia's story ultimately end? That Forman manages to keep readers unsure even up until the final chapters is not only a testament to her skills as a writer, but also to her ability to re-create a unique, and feminist, romance by experimenting at the boundaries of existing genre tropes.

 Gayle Forman, Where She Went. New York: Dutton, 2011.

*Unlike the RWA, which, through its recent change in their RITA award qualifications, has narrowed its definition of "romance" for the YA audience, I take a broader view in this blog, considering literary YA fiction as well as that packaged specifically as "romance."

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Cello ribbons & bows: Luana Krause 
• Zankel Hall: Robert Silman Associates
• Les Paul Junior Guitar: Top Guitars

Next time on RNFF: The origins of the phrase "pornography for women"


  1. "experimenting at the boundaries of existing genre tropes"

    It sounds to me like a variation on the "Big Misunderstanding" plot. In the classic version

    The hero and heroine are moving along in their relationship just fine, and wham! One sees something or hears something that makes them distrust the other - and they won’t say what it is. The other is left in the dark to figure it out. Often, the explanation is a simple one that could clear the problem up right away if the two characters would sit down and just talk to each other. This can last for a good portion of the book. This is what we call the Big Misunderstanding. [...]

    It's a standard method for developing conflict, obviously, and for stretching out the drama of a love relationship. But how can it be a good conflict when it makes many readers want to scream? The hero or heroine who refuses to state the problem can become unsympathetic to the reader, and, if it’s taken too far, stupid as well.

    Why doesn't Mia doesn't bother telling Adam how she feels instead of drifting gradually away? Why didn't Adam ask at the time?

    "Unwilling to continue to play the victim, Mia makes the (feminist) choice to reject self-sacrifice, even if it means sacrificing her relationship with the man she loves"

    Presumably the relationship wasn't an abusive one in which Mia might have been at risk if she'd made her feelings clear so I think it would have been more feminist if she'd made this point to him explicitly, instead of just drifting away from him. I mean, if one wants to challenge gender roles which lead men to assume that they must protect women, wouldn't it be better to tell them when they're engaging in this kind of behaviour and explain why it's unacceptable?

  2. Laura:

    The "big misunderstanding" plot typically relies on the "simple" misunderstanding, one that "could clear the problem up right away if the two characters would sit down and just talk to each other," as the All About Romance quote notes. Mia and Adam's "misunderstanding" is far more complex. Mia was grieving the loss of her entire family, as well as trying to physically recover from the injuries she herself suffered. When one is recovering from trauma, it is almost too difficult to keep oneself going, never mind try to persuade someone else that his behavior is hurting one.

    Mia tried to tell Adam how his protective behavior was harming her, but he and her grandparents were so determined to keep her safe that they couldn't hear her. Only after she found herself in New York, away from their solicitousness, did she realize how profound a difference being free from it made to her.

    Yes, it would be better if one wants to challenge gender roles if one could come out and talk about this directly, and immediately. But sometimes people aren't ready to listen, or we aren't in a safe enough place to make the effort to speak of it. What I find feminist about Mia and Adam's story is that, ultimately, despite the damage that they each sustained because of the tragedies they went through, when they have had time to recover from the immediacy of their pain, they are able to continue the conversation, and forge something new.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, Jackie. I suspect that, because I haven't read the book, the bit you quoted about

      there's cruel! Is that who you've become?"
      "Maybe it was who I needed to be for a while

      made more of an impact on me than it would have done if I'd read it in context and gave me the impression that there wasn't any real justification for Mia's behaviour.

  3. You're welcome, Laura. That's always the danger in reviewing, that in trying to condense a complex work down to essentials, you misrepresent it. Thanks for pushing me to clarify.

  4. I hadn't read these books before you posted your review, though I'd been meaning to. I thought you'd like to know that it prompted me to go out and get both of them immediately. They were amazing -- thank you!

  5. So glad you liked them, Amy Lee (and glad we continue to share the same great taste in books!)