Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

I absolutely love this cover.
Wow. I found this book in the small pile of galleys on the small table in our small kitchen at work, and picking it up was the best impulsive decision I can remember making in a while. I'd been looking at the pile, not really expecting to find anything because of how few books were in it and how few titles I recognized. Strangely, I didn't recognize this one either, but I read the back and gave it a shot.

Sorry, I'm doing that annoying thing where I give you my personal history with a book instead of just diving directly into my review. But you have to understand that I had no preconceived notions about this book when I picked it up, and no idea-- apart from the blurbs on the back-- if anyone else had liked it either. Sometimes I'm afraid that other people's thoughts on a book influence my own, so I can safely tell you that these are my thoughts and mine alone.

First off, I was hooked from the very beginning. Even before the severed head part (apparently the former title of the book was "Severed Heads, Broken Hearts" and honestly I don't know why they decided to go with The Beginning of Everything, but hey. I guess some people don't want to read a book that might be about severed heads?). Ezra's tone was simultaneously satiric and tragic, at once full of scorn and wonder, and I knew I was done for. Or, more specifically, my skin was done for, because I started the book outside by the pool and did not go inside until 233 pages and one sunburn later.

This is definitely a character-driven book, which is how I like them. Don't get me wrong, things do happen, but they might not be the interesting sorts of things to increase the heart rates of plot-concerned people. The three main characters, Ezra, Toby and Cassidy, are the outcasts of the school, but instead of being the outcasts who fall together by default, they have actual relationships with each other. Toby and Ezra were childhood best friends, until Toby's unfortunate encounter with a severed head; Toby and Cassidy know each other from debate team events; and Ezra and Cassidy develop a natural relationship that stems from their having similar outlooks and senses of humor. The Great Gatsby is referenced several times throughout the book, and though Nick Carraway is never mentioned by name, it's obvious that Ezra fancies himself the Nick Carraway of this story. He's telling it as if it's someone else's story, but it's all his. It's a story about him finding himself, and realizing the type of person he does not want to be. He considers himself an onlooker to the reckless behavior of his jock friends, but at the same time can't seem to escape them until he really wants to-- and then he only looks back in the telling of the story, not in the desire to relive it.

Toby is the comedic relief character, but also kind of the heart of the story. He's the one who's there for Ezra, even though Ezra left him behind, and even though Ezra is kind of a jerk sometimes. He shows Ezra how to be a good friend and how to escape the sillage of the past, all while wearing bow ties (he's a Whovian) and making nerdy jokes. Nerdy jokes: the quickest way to my heart.

Cassidy is where the story becomes a little less Great Gatsby and a little more Looking for Alaska. Ezra is convinced he's in love with her, but Cassidy is convinced he's in love with his idea of her. Where Alaska talks about escaping the labyrinth, Cassidy talks about escaping the panopticon. Her tragedy is entwined with Ezra's, just as Alaska's tragedy becomes Pudge's. She's a thinker; she has grand ideas about life, but she has a long way to go before she figures it all out-- Ezra sees her mistakes for what they are, just as Pudge is finally able to answer the question that Alaska was never able to answer, after it's too late for her.

Now, let's talk about the similarities between this book and Looking for Alaska for a moment, because I have the feeling a lot of people are going to lean toward the negative in their reviews because of it. But here's the thing: they are very, very similar, but they are not the same. They're structured similarly, and they both have the beautiful, sad girl (not beautifully sad, mind you. Neither of these books argue that sadness is beautiful, so don't start), and the references to quotes from historical/literary figures, and the questions/answers about grief and forgiveness and life in general. Heck, the last paragraph of Beginning was so reminiscent of the last page of Alaska I almost felt like there has to be some kind of outline that Robyn Schneider and John Green both used*. But the fact that the two books are so similar does not make either of them any less worth reading. Looking for Alaska is one of my favorite books, so why wouldn't I want to read another book like it? I'm not going to take away points in my review because the book reminded me of another book I loved. That's ridiculous, and if you do that, ask yourself if you're holding other books to the same standard.

*and I have no right to comment on the similarities between the authors/vloggers themselves, or whether it means that one is trying to imitate the other, though some people will probably try to do so. Both are brilliant writers and that's all that matters to me.

Other elements that set this one apart-- not just from Alaska, but from all contemporary YA-- are the nerd culture references, the intelligent humor, and the specific brand of tragedy that occurs. I love books that don't underestimate my appreciation for a ridiculous Catcher in the Rye pun or my ability to believe that a character could find meaning and purpose in organic chemistry. The comedy is well-timed and right up my alley, and the tragedy comes at you fast but then builds slowly, until you're not tears-streaming-down-your-face crying, but can't-see-because-they're-clinging-to-your-eyeballs crying.

Cassidy may seem like the manic pixie dream girl, but she's just a girl trying to keep her sadness to herself, letting it eat away at her. I understood why she made the decisions she made; they seemed like a real, valid way to deal with her pain. And I understood Ezra's feelings, too. Just like Nick with Gatsby, Ezra was able to see Cassidy's world from her point of view and accept the way she chose to live, but still not entirely agree with it.

Took away half a star because I was promised I'd fall in love with Ezra Faulkner, and I did not. The way he talked about girls reminded me a bit too much of someone I know in real life-- particularly his views on the girls in his old clique? First of all, he called them all "tennis girlfriends," like their only defining characteristics were the boys they were dating. And secondly, he looked at them like objects of amusement. As if they didn't have thoughts or emotions other than "Let's go shopping!" and "Ohmygod, can I sit on your lap?"
But really, this was such a small part of the book it really is only worth half a star. He is perfectly respectful to both Phoebe and Cassidy.