Monday, July 18, 2011

Review: How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson

Tanya Egan Gibson's novel How to Buy a Love of Reading has been likened to Cecily von Ziegesar's Gossip Girl series because it focuses on the spoiled rich teens of Fox Glen and their dysfunctional families.  I am not ashamed to admit that I read, and liked, the Gossip Girl series for their shallowness.  As a student of literature, I have read a lot of heavy stuff, and sometimes I like to balance that out with fluff.  Gossip Girl makes no attempt to disguise its shallowness - and for that I can respect Cecily von Ziegesar.  I wish I could say the same about Gibson and her novel.

Despite having similar plots, Gibson's book is a smart book; however, it is a book that calls attention to its intelligence, which frankly, I find arrogant and annoying.  Each part of the novel is titled after a literary device like theme, setting, and backstory.  Each chapter then goes on to demonstrate or unveil the theme, setting, or backstory of the characters and story in How to Buy a Love of Reading.  Gibson is very deliberately calling attention to the storytelling devices in her novel in an effort to prove that she is much smarter than the characters she has created and that her novel is so much more than a shallow story about the frivolous life of the rich.

As if the author's overt intrusion into her own story were not unsettling enough, the novel's plot centers around an author, Bree, who has been commissioned to write a novel for an (almost) sixteen year old girl, Carley, in an attempt by Carley's parents to "brand" her with a hobby.  It is obvious that Bree - whose specialty is "meta-fiction," stories within stories within stories that require copious footnotes and explanations and tangents (kind of like a novel full of sentences like these) - is supposed to be an incarnation of our author - Gibson.  The novel she writes for Carley as well as all their discussions about literature and writing are mirrored in Gibson's execution of her novel.  For example, the section in which Bree describes meta-fiction (see explanation above) to Carley is written as meta-fiction.

Gibson's characters are on a whole unlikable as well.  They are stereotypically branded based on their problems, and it is only in the few pages of the epilogue that any of these problems approach resolve.  Bree is a struggling novelist - for obvious reasons - who is so worried about being perceived as a writer of fluff that she works extra hard to be cynical and intelligently snarky that it is painful to watch and read.  Carley is your typical fifteen year old girl with an overbearing mother - an outsider wanting desperately to fit in and thus has multiple issues with self-esteem and body image.  Her mother is your average cold bitch, who wants to mold her daughter into a beauty queen at all costs and her father, while more likeable, is predictably having an affair with her mother's best friend because his wife is too frigid to give it up.  The other main character is Carley's best friend and love interest, Hunter, who is the epitome of the popular, but troubled, kid.  Carley is the only one Hunter trusts to see him at his worst - and as the novel progresses, he is more often worse than better.

I thought about putting this novel down several pages in, but I have to admit, it gets better the further you read.  In addition to the novel commission, the action of How to Buy a Love of Reading mostly hinges on various parties and after-parties, but there are some poignant moments when Gibson allows her characters simply to be.  The section on "Backstory" is refreshingly free of heavy-handed symbolism and plot devices, even if this is the section where the reader learns Carley's and Hunter's backstories.  Also, although the actual writing needs work, Bree's commissioned novel has an interesting plot that mocks pop culture phenomenons like reality T.V.  The novel loses some of its pretentious observation several sections in, and Carley's story ends up in a hopeful place, but unfortunately, Gibson's epilogue reverts back to some of the same pseudo-philisophical phrasings that the beginning of her novel suffers from.

In short this novel is not for the faint of heart.  The reader has to be determined to see Gibson's characters through, and just maybe he or she will be rewarded with a few small scenes of touching revelation and reality. 

Best matched with an ability to persevere.

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