Friday, March 15, 2013

Friday Forays in Fiction: Book Review--The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy Paper
By Elizabeth Laban
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Pages: 320

Welcome to the Irving School, a prestigious boarding school in upstate New York whose motto is "Enter here to be and find a friend" and where tradition, ritual, loyalty and social status reign.  One of the traditions is The Tragedy Paper, assigned to seniors by Mr. Patrick, the English teacher, a project filling every senior with angst before they set foot on campus for their senior year.  Due in the spring and required for graduation, this paper is to be the culmination of all they gleaned from the many months of reading Shakespeare and discussing the elements of literary tragedy in class--tragic flaws, reversals of fortune, irony and monomania.

By alternating between the POV of two boys who are seniors in succeeding years LaBan gives us the stories of two boys in the throws of this angst, two tradgedy papers in the making, two young love stories and two coming of age stories.  The two distinctive voices and LaBan's use of language, metaphor, image and nods to literary precursors made this story a joy to read.  And I do not use that word lightly. :)

One of Irving's venerated traditions is the assigning of dorm rooms to the senior boys who receive some kind of gift and a note from the previous year's occupant.  In the opening we are with Duncan whose angst about The Tragedy Paper is colored by some memory of an event near the end of the precious year.  A tragedy?  We wonder.  He is assigned the least desired of the dorm rooms as it is tiny and dark and at the far end of the long hall.  The previous year's occupant had been Tim Macbeth, whose name is somehow linked to that event of the previous year.

The gift Tim leaves for Duncan is not in the category of the legendary tickets to a big league game, a puppy, or booze nor in the  category of the infamous pizza left rotting for three months.  Instead Tim leaves him a stack of CDs and when Duncan puts the first one in the voice of Tim lists some of the benefits of this seeming dungeon of a room, including a secret compartment in the closet in which he has left something for him but the real gift, if he will listen to the end, is The Tragedy Paper.

And so we are gently guided back and forth between the third person POV of Duncan as his year progresses and the first person POV of Tim as Duncan listens, at first reluctantly but then obsessively, to the story leading up to that night the previous spring that still haunts Duncan who, it is hinted, had played some role in it, and sheds a pall over his senior class.  What exactly happened and why is not revealed until near the end.  The pacing of the suspense is masterful.

At the roots of the tragedy was the love story between Tim, an albino struggling with self-image and social anxiety issues, and Vanessa the school's 'it girl' whose own insecurities prevent her from breaking it off with her long time boyfriend, the popular Patrick who rules the senior class, and Vanessa, with a combination of charm and browbeating..  It is these personal demons that overshadow and curtail the friendship between Vanessa and Tim begun the night they were snowbound in the airport on their way to school after Thanksgiving break.

The best thing about this story and what, I believe, will insure its place among classic coming of age literature, is that it is a meditation on the role of art, literature especially and the genre tragedy in particular, in giving us an blueprint of how to be in the world and how to find our way back after taking a grievous unintended detour.

Book trailer:

From the Publishers:

Perfect for fans of Thirteen Reasons Why and Looking for Alaska, Jennifer Weiner, #1 New York Times bestselling author, calls Elizabeth LaBan’s The Tragedy Paper “a beguiling and beautifully written tale of first love and heartbreak.”
It follows the story of Tim Macbeth, a seventeen-year-old albino and a recent transfer to the prestigious Irving School, where the motto is “Enter here to be and find a friend.” A friend is the last thing Tim expects or wants—he just hopes to get through his senior year unnoticed. Yet, despite his efforts to blend into the background, he finds himself falling for the quintessential “It” girl, Vanessa Sheller, girlfriend of Irving’s most popular boy. To Tim's surprise, Vanessa is into him, too, but she can kiss her social status goodbye if anyone ever finds out. Tim and Vanessa begin a clandestine romance, but looming over them is the Tragedy Paper, Irving’s version of a senior year thesis, assigned by the school’s least forgiving teacher.
Jumping between viewpoints of the love-struck Tim and Duncan, a current senior about to uncover the truth of Tim and Vanessa, The Tragedy Paper is a compelling tale of forbidden love and the lengths people will go to keep their secrets.

What they are saying:

Winter 2012-2013 Kids’ Indie Next List
Amazon Best Books of the Month of January 2013
Spotlight Pick for the best Young Adult of January 2011
Entertainment Weekly, January 4, 2013:
"LaBan's debut -- reminiscent of Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why -- compassionately illustrates the tragedy of withholding love and friendship, or worse, never having the courage to seek them out."
Starred Review, Booklist, November 15, 2012:
“Debut novelist LaBan takes us into the private school culture as well as the heads of two charming yet very different teenage boys and their parallel love stories… Nonexistent parents, well-intentioned, likeable faculty on the periphery, elaborate dorm rooms with overstuffed closets, even the romantic, snow-covered campus all contribute to a setting that adds to the story’s heft and intrigue.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 8, 2013:
"This novel is relatable and unusually gripping, even for an older reader - full of slings and arrows and outrageous fortune...Romantic love, hard work, loyalty, friendship, suffering: Like the great tragedies that inspired the novel, it's all here. LaBan's take on adolescent life is rendered in the sweet, intelligent tradition of John Irving, but without any of the prep-school genre's self-satisfaction."
School Library Journal, February 2013:
"Strong plotting and characterization make Tim and Vanessa come to life for readers as much as for Duncan, whose understanding of tragedy becomes almost overwhelmingly acute."

ELIZABETH LABAN worked at NBC News, taught at a community college, and has written for several magazines and newspapers. The Tragedy Paper is her first young adult novel. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.

A widget for reading the first chapter is available at the Randomhouse link above.

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