Absolute Brightness is one of the most hyped YA novels of the year so far, and after reading it, I'm sorry to say that I was not impressed.
The plot: In Neptune, New Jersey, Phoebe Hertle's quiet, literary, relatively normal life is shaken up by the arrival of her flamboyant cousin Leonard. Leonard is anything but normal and for some time, Phoebe can't stand to be around him. Leonard's comfort in himself, however, inspires the women of the town of Neptune to be their more stylish selves. Phoebe gets used to Leonard's colorful ways until the day he disappears. Weeks later his body is found in a nearby lake, and Neptune's biggest murder mystery unfolds.
Why the book didn't work: It's too long. I know that sounds like a stupid reason for the book's failures, but that's the short of it. There are so many plotlines that get tangled and ultimately forgotten that the story as a whole is unsatisfying at the end. The language is monotonous and stilted and Phoebe seems so dispassionate, so distanced from herself and the situations around her that the reader has a difficult time caring about her or anyone else in her life. The author is trying to squeeze in too many lessons about tolerance and yes, it is possible to feel squeezed in a 400+ page book. Better editing and pacing, and snipping of a few plotlines, could have improved this book a lot.
Editing to add: I do some editing of friends' short stories, just for fun, and one of the first things I always end up telling them is to show and not tell. This book had way more telling than showing, and that was a big factor in its failure.
Sometimes it's the small details that are the most bothersome, so to me this was the most badly memorable moment of the book.
Page 210: When someone saw Dad pumping gas into Chrissie's Honda Civic down at the Mobil station on Division Street, Mom held to the idea that her husband was just being a Good Samaritan.
Because everyone who lives here knows...you can't pump your own gas in New Jersey. (And no, Phoebe's dad does not work at a gas station.)
The other thing I found odd were the blurbs on the back of the book from Eve Ensler, Michael Cunningham, Armistead Maupin, and Duncan Sheik. All brilliant minds in their own right, yes, but none of them are known for writing books/plays/movies aimed at a YA audience. I wonder why these particular people were asked to blurb the book.
Ah well. With books, you win some and you lose some. On to the next title.