Taking Control

  • Susan Nielson
    Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom. Tundra Books
  • Lesley Choyce
    Living Outside the Lines. Red Deer Press
Reviewed by Suzanne James

Teenagers often feel frustrated by their limited control over day-to-day life and the future, and thwarted by controlling parents and situations. Reflecting these concerns, young adult novels frequently present empowered protagonists who succeed in controlling—rather than being controlled by—their environments. In Lesley Choyce’s Living Outside the Lines, control takes the form of inspiring the creation of a future society drastically different than our own, visualized in a novel-within-a-novel composed by the book’s sixteen-year old protagonist, Nigel. Less dramatically, but more convincingly, the teenage narrator of Susan Nielsen’s Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom succeeds in gaining control over her environment by changing herself and her interactions with others.

The first-person narrative of Living Outside the Lines opens with the rather clichéd device of the inspiring creative writing instructor prodding his students to write a novel so powerful, inventive, enthralling, and revolutionary that readers take the message to heart and do something to make this a better world to live in. While most of the students remain indifferent, Nigel is inspired to live outside the lines and so sets out to complete a novel over the course of the term (each of his four previous attempts having stalled at page 176). Writing a novel proves surprisingly straight-forward: after little creative anguish, and even less editing, Nigel’s partially complete draft earns him a lucrative book contract. Far more intriguing is Nigel’s relationship with Michelle, a mysterious classmate who—as we realize long before he does—has travelled back through time to meet our narrator. As the novel shifts from contemporary realism to science fiction, characters debate the ethics of time-travel and its potential to change future events, though the nature of the futuristic world inspired by the novel-within-the-novel proves far more interesting.

Nigel’s creative work, sections of which are included in the text, posits a country in which discovery, endeavor, and governance are handled by young adults aged fifteen to twenty two; mature adults step aside to pursue hobbies and play no more than an advisory role in the real work of society. This novel, we discover, provides the blueprint for the future to which Nigel travels in the closing section of Choyce’s text. Although not a perfect utopia, the world managed by young adults is peaceful, egalitarian, innovative, and—most importantly—takes advantage of the potential of its young citizens. As Choyce argues in an interview, Adults have not been that good at solving some of the world’s greatest problems . . . why not let young people with possibly some radical new improved ideas take over?

Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom is a more subtle, character-driven work which lives up to the playful absurdity of its title. Nielsen’s novel succeeds in being thought-provoking and relevant with little of the overt earnestness which often characterizes young adult novels. Violet, the twelve-year old narrator, projects her anger at her father (who has left her mother and married an aspiring actress) on to her twin half-sisters by persuading the toddlers to eat cat turds. The scene is outrageous, and, as presented in the novel, appears both funny and plausible. As Violet explains, What happened was this . . . ˜It’s chocolate,’ I said. ˜Santa must have left it. Look, there’s one for each of you.’ Objectively, as the narrator realizes, her actions are wrong; yet the insincerity of her father and his new wife and their over-reaction to the incident, combined with the vicarious pleasure of observing Violet’s audaciously antisocial behaviour, lead readers to sympathize with her. Following this incident we watch her struggle with anger, disappointment, and embarrassment at her mother’s desperate search for a new man, as well as with feelings of alienation at school. Nielsen’s touch is deft and the book’s lightly humorous, ironic perspective keeps the domestic drama and teenage angst from becoming too self-indulgent. Violet’s transformation into a more tolerant and understanding individual is marked by realistic setbacks as well as advances, and the supporting characters, for the most part, move beyond caricature. When the novel closes with an encouraging personal note from George Clooney, we really want to believe it could happen.

Living Outside the Lines and Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom are well-crafted novels targeting a young adult audience. Working within generic conventions, the authors succeed in balancing accessibility, relatively fast-moving plots, and catchy narrative twists with, in Nielsen’s novel, a subtlety of characterization, and in Choyce’s work, an exploration of the socio-political issue of teenage autonomy and potential.

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