Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Review: Forever by Maggie Stiefvater

Forever is the final novel in Maggie Stiefvater's The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy.  I have been anxiously awaiting its publication since I read Shiver and Linger in quick succession last summer.  The trilogy chronicles the lives of a group of werewolves in Mercy Falls, MN as they alternate between their human forms in the summer and their wolf forms in the winter.  Like most young adult paranormal literature, the series focuses on the intense love affair between sometimes werewolf Sam and werewolf at heart Grace.  Unlike most young adult paranormal literature, the teens are interested in more than pre-marital sex, and Stiefvater's writing style is eloquent and educated.  Larger themes throughout the trilogy include parental authority and teen responsibility, human versus bestial personalities, abuse, and identity - all themes that teens experience and relate to (even if they are not turning into a werewolf when its cold outside).

Despite the fresh premise and writing style, Forever suffers from the same ailment that afflicts many trilogies - it is the last of the series, and therefore, the characters and plot remain where the author has left them.  There is no hope for change or reconciliation because this is the end.  I have read several conflicted reviews of Forever since its release, and unfortunately, my review will join those ranks.  It pains me to say that because I do love the series and the characters, but in my eyes, the quality of the plot has greatly diminished from the first novel, Shiver, to the final, Forever.  In fact, I will go so far as to agree with several other reviewers who professed Shiver may have been better as a stand-alone novel.  *Note: There are potential spoilers in this review.

Since I am being honest here, I picked up Shiver several times because of its beautiful cover but always put it back after reading the book summary blurb.  I was only marginally interested in the werewolf sect, and the plot hit a little too close to the Twilight home for me to want to read it.  However, after about the fifth time I picked it up (curse that beautiful cover design!) I said, why not, bought it, read it....and I loved it.  As I have already pointed out above, Stiefvater has an eloquent and persuasive way with words.  Her characters are real teens, dealing with real issues and emotions, who just happen to turn into werewolves in the winter, and even that struggle becomes poetic.  For example, Sam has a hard time relinquishing his humanity while Shelby, Cole, and even, it's hinted at, Beck see being a werewolf as an exit, a way to avoid the pain that invades their human lives.  I didn't read Shiver until Linger was already published, so as soon as I finished Shiver, I opened up my Kindle and immediately downloaded Linger.  While I found Grace's struggle with the wolf inside of her to be a bit drawn out and overwrought compared to the simple longing of Shiver, I was still moved by the book and frantic with worry about how Sam and Grace's future would play out in Forever.  I anticipated that I would speed through Forever like I did Shiver and Linger, but it actually took me several days to finish the book.  I had to keep putting it down because of the intensity of emotion and conflict expressed by the characters.  I found myself flipping to the end of chapters to see what was coming next, a reading trait that is completely uncharacteristic for me, because I was bored with what was happening now.  Where the introspection of Shiver moved me, the constant wondering about what to do next instead of executing a plan of action in Forever irritated me.  I love the series, but I was unsatisfied by its conclusion in Forever.  To make sense of this conflict, I have created a pro/con list, detailing what I see as the novel's strengths and weaknesses.

  • Each novel is narrated from multiple point-of-views.  Shiver alternates between Grace and Sam and highlights the change in temperature with the change in chapter and perspective.  This technique is effective because it emphasizes the intimacy of their relationship as well as its biggest threat.  Linger adds two new narrators, Cole and Isabel.  The addition of Cole and Isabel as narrators demonstrates the widening of the world of the werewolves and the world of Grace and Sam.  They must begin to consider how their lifestyle is affecting those around them.  These four narrators remain in Forever with the exception of a brief prologue narrated by Shelby, another werewolf.  Shelby's prologue offers sinister foreshadowing and narrates a pivotal event of Forever that puts all of the werewolves in danger.  At a recent singing at Quail Ridge Books, Stiefvater was asked why she chose to narrate the series from multiple points-of-view, and she replied that she felt that certain characters needed to narrate certain scenes - ones where they changed or had a revelation - and that sometimes characters lie, and it served the reader well to pull out of one character's perspective and gain a fuller understanding of a situation.  I agree.  Switching between narrators allowed me to shake off Sam's emo funk and Isabel's bitchiness for a few minutes and get a different perspective on the situation.
  • Grace and Sam's relationship may seem overly earnest to some, and I admit, when I first read Shiver, I thought these kids are way too serious, but then I was reminded of my own relationship the summer I turned seventeen to the man I am now married to, and I remember that it is perfectly likely that you will find your soulmate at that age.
  • To me, one of the most poignant scenes of Forever occurs towards the end of the novel when Grace and Sam are both wolves together for the first time.  The joy they experience when sharing their wolf skins and the natural way they communicate and enhance the pack's dynamics is so effervescent I was moved to tears.
  • Another scene from the novel that I loved is the scene where Cole drives the black, Mustang die-cast car Isabel gave him up her arm.  I tend to picture Cole as older than he really is because of his "been there, done that" personality, but this sweet moment reminded me vividly that he is only eighteen or nineteen and that his lifestyle choices have caused him to grow up too fast.  It was nice to see him regain some of his childhood.
  • I know you are thinking, didn't this plot point just appear in the "pro" list, and it did, but I also have some problems with Grace and Sam's relationship as it is portrayed in Forever.  In between the end of Linger and the beginning of Forever, Grace and Sam are separated for several months because she is a wolf and he is not.  As the weather begins to warm up, there are some near misses where Grace becomes human for a few minutes or a few hours and calls Sam, but she returns to her wolf body before he arrives to see her.  When the two are finally reunited, their meeting is anti-climatic.  It seems unrealistic to me that two lovers who have been separated with very limited communication for such a long period of time would merely hug and have a mundane conversation upon their first meeting.  This lack of physical intimacy continues throughout the course of the novel with the notable exceptions of the white dress scene and the scene where they are wolves, which I described in my "pro" column above.
  • As I have already indicated, Forever is slow going.  The reader is stuck in the characters' heads suffering through their internal conflicts for so long that he/she finally wants to side with Isabel and shout, "Why the hell aren't you doing anything?!?"  The action picks up in the last fifty pages or so, but decisions should have been made and decisive action taken long before that.
  • Finally, Forever leaves me with some unanswered questions that will remain unanswered because Stiefvater has vowed that this is the last book in the series.  I am not a reader that needs to have everything spelled out for her, and I can even enjoy an open conclusion if the author has given me all of the pieces along the way to fit the puzzle together for myself.  However, Stiefvater drops hints about several key aspects of the plot throughout Forever but fails to provide the reader with the thread needed to connect the dots.  Thus, here are the notable plot sinkholes:
    • Beck's history remains a mystery even after Cole turns him back into a human to set the record straight.
    • The use of a meningitis "vaccine" is considered a cure in Linger, then a masking of the symptoms in Forever, before being offered as a cure again.  Is it a cure or not?  The answer to this question is very important to understanding the novel's conclusion.
    • What does it mean for the werewolves that the wolf toxin acts like malaria?
    • Is Sam fully cured, or will he suffer from the same disease as Grace in Linger and be forced to shift again?  If he shifts will he be able to shift back?  
    • Who were the other wolves that died?
Despite my qualms above, I recommend this series for teen readers.  The defining factor in all teenagers' lives is their inability to fit in.  They are no longer children, but they are not quite adults either - an issue Grace and her parents struggle with continuously.  Yet, occasionally, they must assume adult responsibility, like Sam does in Beck's absence.  The characters in The Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy are straddling the same line of liminality that defines the teenage experience.  They hover between human and wolf, summer and winter, hot and cold, love and hate, child and adult.  Their experiences can be a very compelling example for other teens who are struggling to figure out who they really are.

Best matched with an appreciation of poetry and aesthetics, a cursory interest in science, the paranormal, and animals, and an investment in the series.

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