Title: Still Life With Tornado
Author: A.S. King
Published: October 11th 2016 by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): YA, Magical Realism
“I am sixteen years old. I am a human being.”
Actually Sarah is several human beings. At once. And only one of them is sixteen. Her parents insist she’s a gifted artist with a bright future, but now she can’t draw a thing, not even her own hand. Meanwhile, there’s a ten-year-old Sarah with a filthy mouth, a bad sunburn, and a clear memory of the family vacation in Mexico that ruined everything. She’s a ray of sunshine compared to twenty-three-year-old Sarah, who has snazzy highlights and a bad attitude. And then there’s forty-year-old Sarah (makes good queso dip, doesn’t wear a bra, really wants sixteen-year-old Sarah to tell the truth about her art teacher). They’re all wandering Philadelphia—along with a homeless artist allegedly named Earl—and they’re all worried about Sarah’s future.
But Sarah’s future isn’t the problem. The present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.
“I am a human being. I am sixteen years old. That should be enough.”
I really didn’t like this book. Whoops? And I realize that this is a pretty unpopular opinion, so…double whoops?
This book is about a 16 year-old girl, Sarah, who is kind of going through an existential crisis. She has come to the realization that nothing she does is original and she’s basically just like everybody else. She wants to be different, to stand out, to change her name and move to Spain. And then she sees herself, 7 years in the future, on a public bus. And she starts to question everything.
Which sounds like an amazing magical realism story. However, it’s the classic predicament of ‘great concept, bad delivery’, which is so unfortunate, because magical realism is somewhat hard to find and has always been one of the most fascinating genres for me. (If you guys have any recs, let me know!) I was expecting to be whisked away on an adventure of magic and intrigue, with a hint of gritty reality. I was not. If anything, it was like I took a two hour plane ride, where there were no good movies on, the pretzels were stale, and there was a kid kicking the back of my seat the entire time.
All of My Problems
The characters – The only character I liked in this book was the mom. Everyone else annoyed me, especially the main character, Sarah. The entire time I was reading this, I was trying desperately to find any part of her to appreciate or relate to and coming up empty. To put it simply: Sarah was an ungrateful brat. Although, to give the author credit, I think making her unlikable was intentional; whether it was meant to be a kind of social commentary on “originality” or a validation of the problems teenagers go through. However, it kind of missed the mark for me. I didn’t really care if there was a deeper meaning to her characterization, I just really, really didn’t like her, and that ruined the story for me.
The writing – Much like with the characters, I didn’t connect to the writing style either. It was extremely repetitive, to the point where I couldn’t see the word “original” without rolling my eyes. The same phrases were being repeated over and over and Sarah kept going back to the same thoughts she’s had since the very beginning. Any metaphor I thought was particularly good at the beginning was milked for everything it was worth until it no longer meant anything.
The structure – Aside from the main plot, there were a lot of different subplots and problems that other characters were dealing with. Which is fine, a lot of books have minor plots that tie into the main one at the end (and a lot of books pull it off), but this one just felt…messy. The subplots were all over the place, and I feel like some just existed for an extra shock-value. There are some introduced at the beginning and then disappear and reappear at random times. I won’t go further into it because it’s hard to explain and spoiler-y, but the bottom line is: it was not done well.
Why I Didn’t Give it One Star
Alright, I have to admit, the ending got to me. Though the rest of the book was a tangled mess of patched-together narratives and situations, there was an underlying central issue that tied all the characters together and built up slowly and strategically until it eventually exploded (in a good way). I won’t divulge what that issue was, because spoilers, but the ending handled it really (if not strangely) well and I finished this book feeling pretty satisfied. But then, you know, I remembered the other 80% of the book.
That’s my review!
Please don’t stone me in the comments. Did any of you guys read this book? Do you agree or disagree with any of my qualms? Let me know! (AND if you have any magical realism recommendations that can get this sour taste out of my mouth, I would love to hear them)