Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Every Exquisite Thing

by Matthew Quick
Little Brown     2016
265 pages     YA

Do you remember the book that was most influential to you when you were growing up? Did it change your life? I'm thinking of Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. While all of these were important to me, the book that sticks in my mind forever is Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. I read it the summer I graduated from high school, and it certainly influenced my decision to major in philosophy and theology. Franny's search for meaning echoed my search for meaning.

This is the setup for Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick—a book that changes everything. A favorite teacher gives Nanette O'Hare a worn and tattered copy of The Bubblegum Reaper by Nigel Booker. It is an out-of-print, cult classic, coming-of-age story, and Mr. Graves tells Nanette that it is the book that changed his life when he was a kid. Nanette soon finds that it is changing her life as well. She reads and rereads it, and when she discovers that the author lives nearby, she wangles an introduction.  Booker is a recluse, but he takes a liking to Nanette and soon introduces her to Alex, another teenager who loves The Bubblegum Reaper. Booker remains a solid presence in their lives and does what he can to guide Nanette and Alex through their obsession with The Bubblegum Reaper and the confusion of high school.

Like many teenagers, Nanette and Alex feel alienated from the world and other kids their age, and The Bubblegum Reaper parallels their angst and encourages their rebellion. Nanette has been a high school soccer star but she quits the team in dramatic fashion because she finds that it has no more meaning for her. Her middle class, suburban high school feels confining and conventional. Alex feels the same about his life and his school, but he is far more action oriented than Nanette, and his actions lead him down a path from which he cannot emerge. Alex is a poet and interspersed throughout the novel are his poems, many of which he gives to Nanette. At one point he says to her that they will be together in the future but "we just have to make it through this last bit of our childhood." 

Quick tackles teenage mental health in Every Exquisite Thing, something that is far more common for today's teenagers than generally recognized in YA literature. At one point, Nanette tells her parents everything that is going on in her life, and they encourage her to get therapy, which she does gladly, because she knows that her life is spinning out of control. The therapist really understands Nanette and helps her forge a new, authentic path for herself.  She introduces Nanette to Pat Benatar and her song Invincible. The song "encourages Nanette to take control of her life." Slowly a new, more mature Nanette emerges, ready to face the next chapter of her life.

I chuckled at that because my 19-year-old grandson has been in and out of our house this summer. He told me last week that he had decided to "take control of my life." I, of course, thought that was a good idea and expressed as much. We'll see how that goes as the summer progresses.

Although I can't quite remember my feelings of alienation as a teenager, I certainly can remember my children's anxieties, and now I hear the same from my grandchildren. There is much that is real in Every Exquisite Thing. Does it take itself too seriously? Perhaps from the perspective of a grandmother, but I believe that my 15-year-old granddaughters will love every word of it.

Here's what I learned from Every Exquisite Thing. I learned that I needed to discover the poet, Charles Bukowski. I discovered that I had a new novel called Shadowboxing with Bukowski by Darrell Kastin on my to-be-read list. I also found a collection of Bukowski's musings about cats on my Kindle which I never got to. Part of my summer's reading, I guess. I have also been listening to Pat Benatar, whose music escaped me in the past. Every Exquisite Thing helped me remember once again that as adulthood beckons, young adults come out of the morass of anxiety and "make it through this last bit" of childhood. 

 An interesting interview with Quick on the NPR show, Here and Now, discusses his experiences as a high school English teacher that informed his writing of Every Exquisite Thing.

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