In the last few years, John Green has kind of become the king of contemporary “realistic” teen fiction. I mean, just look at the furor caused by The Fault In Our Stars
. It’s so popular that anyone who dares post a negative review on this site is descended upon by hordes of angry fans who don’t get that someone else not liking something doesn’t have to invalidate your own enjoyment of it.
I love John Green as much as anyone else, but his books often contain many of the same young-adulty elements: a situation that takes parents out of the equation, a predictable social structure in which the nerdish main character falls for a beautiful, borderline manic-pixie It Girl whose It Guy boyfriend is a jerk who doesn't appreciate her, an adherence to traditions and rituals within the teenage community, and an underlying appreciation of academics (usually literature, but once it was math). He didn't invent these tropes, but I definitely associate them with his books. The Tragedy Paper
contains all of these elements, which is why I described the book to several of my friends as an introduction to John Green. And yet, it still feels like its own little beast.
The main character of this book is Tim Macbeth. He’s an albino and, because of that, he’s always been a little bit of an outcast. His parents are moving from Chicago to Italy, so he’s going to get a fresh start by spending the last semester of his senior year at The Irving School, a boarding school in New York whose motto is “Enter here and find a friend.” En route to the school, Tim is stranded at the airport hotel and meets Vanessa, also traveling to Irving. The two connect, but she’s got a boyfriend and Tim assumes that his albinism means he doesn’t have a chance.
Once he’s at Irving, Tim learns about two important school traditions: the Tragedy Paper – a senior English thesis that’s pretty self-explanatory in theme – and the senior Game, which is basically a big blow out planned and executed by a group of “randomly chosen” students who just so happen to be the most popular kids: in this case, it’s Vanessa’s boyfriend, Patrick who is in charge, but because he’s the new kid, Tim is invited to help out.
The book is structured in a sort of roundabout way. It’s actually two stories, Tim’s being relayed to Duncan – an Irving student a year behind Tim – via a collection of CDs Tim burned and left behind in his dorm room as part of another school tradition – leaving a “treasure” for the junior who will inherit your room as a senior. Duncan becomes absorbed in Tim’s story as he struggles to complete his Tragedy Paper assignment and to navigate the scary world of liking a girl. This structure didn’t always work for me, because Duncan was a less interesting character and the asides about how he had to change the CD were awkward transitions. However, Duncan knows how the story is going to end before it even begins – he was present at the climactic event of the book, so Tim’s narration becomes more tensiony as we the reader aren’t sure what it’s building to.
Eh, Duncan’s a bit of a device but it wasn’t all together awful or cloying. It’s my only real complaint about the book, which is ultimately as smart and engaging as anything Green’s put out. And honestly, I was so nervous about where the story was headed that I don’t think my ass unclenched for the entire three days I was reading it.
Ass clenching is always a sign of a great book.