Sense and Sensitivity

Reviewed by Suzanne James

In YA novels, teenage protagonists are commonly presented as more sensitive and perceptive than the adults in their lives, and these two works about articulate young women attempting to bring clarity and resolution to increasingly mysterious situations are no exception. The protagonist of Bedard’s work finds herself caught up in a series of supernatural events placing she and her aunt in danger, while in Rosoff’s novel, the main character and her father set out to find a middle-aged professor whose abrupt disappearance has confounded both his family and friends. Yet in spite of initially predictable plots, both works succeed in transcending generic expectations and reaching more nuanced resolutions than one might initially expect.

Michael Bedard’s The Green Man opens in a low-key manner, as 15-year old “O” (she hates her given name, Ophelia, and its association with Shakespeare’s mad heroine who drowns herself), learns that she will be spending her summer holiday with her eccentric Aunt Emily, a poet who runs a bookstore in a small town back east. Emily has recently suffered from a heart-attack, lives alone, smokes too much, eats poorly, and comes to appreciate her niece’s companionship and mothering tendencies. For the first quarter of the novel it seems that the plot will focus on the increasing interdependence of the two women and their charmed summer living and working together in The Green Man bookstore.

However, Bedard’s novel slowly builds in intensity as O notices strange appearances and Emily recounts a disturbing, recurring dream of a malicious magician. Readers must accept the occasional supernatural shift in time, and the appearance of a few literary ghosts (Emily Dickinson sometimes haunts the bookshelves, and the young man who befriends O just may be the French poet, Rimbaud), yet the novel remains generally grounded in the daily routine and realistic life of a small town. By alternating between the perspectives of O and her aunt, Bedard is able to provide a dual interpretation of events, develop ironic misunderstandings in their relationship and present Emily as a poet-mentor to her niece.

However, The Green Man’s rather romanticized presentation of poetry as the “magic of creating something new with words,” “nothing to be dabbled in” and potentially “a dangerous thing” is one of the weaker strands of the novel. Emily makes pronouncements like “[e]very day, poets must believe in the possibility of the impossible” and advises O to write poetry only if “you absolutely have to do it, if something inside you will die if you don’t.” On their own these pronouncements carry some weight, but repeated attestations of the power of poetry and the role of poets as “outsiders and rebels exercising a sort of passive resistance to society at large” become tiresome, rather than inspirational.

From the outset, Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone is a faster paced work, blending somewhat ironic observations of American society from the perspective of a British teenager with an increasingly frustrating search for a missing middle-aged professor. Mila, the novel’s first-person narrator, is proud of her sleuth-like abilities to interpret situational clues and to read character and incident more effectively than her often distracted father. In a characteristically breezy tone, she informs us that,

I collect images like a camera clicking away. I can barely remember what Matthew looks like and there are no pictures of him to remind me. No picture of him and Suzanne on their wedding day or him with Gabriel. Or just him.


Other details leap out at me: A pair of muddy shoes. A stack of bills. A cracked window. A closed door. A pile of clothes. A skateboard. A dog. Click click click. First impressions? This is not a happy house.

However, concrete clues to explain Matthew’s disappearance remain elusive, and the novel takes an interesting twist when Mila suddenly realizes that her father is not seriously looking for his supposedly lost friend. Her subsequent feeling of betrayal challenges her earlier, somewhat patronizing view of her father, as well as her instinctive trust of his integrity, and the novel ends with the aftermath of a surprisingly non-dramatic meeting with Matthew, the man they have been pursuing. Mila, her father and the reader are left without easy answers. Her quiet epiphany about the difficulty of understanding relationships is presented in the context of her father’s work as a translator: “So much of translating, Gil once told me, takes place in an imaginary space where the writer and the translator come together. It is not necessary to sympathize with the writer, to agree with what he’s written. But it is necessary to walk alongside and stay in step.”

As well as presenting realistically idiosyncratic relationships and interpersonal problems without tidy resolutions, The Green Man and Picture Me Gone both bring to life a reflective and quirky female protagonist who positions herself outside of the mainstream of popular culture and teenage romance. As such, these works have the potential to be quietly transformative without being too self-consciously inspirational.

This review “Sense and Sensitivity” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 124-25.

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