Friday, December 5, 2008

The Spectacular Book

Count me as one of the legions of YA librarians who'd never heard of The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp until it was nominated for the National Book Award. Wow, my little cave was a sad, sad place.

The plot: The plot is kind of boring, really, but that's okay because this is one of those snapshots-of-life books rather than a book involving adventures. As I've said before, I am always up for cerebral books with male main characters. In the last months of garrulous Sutter Keely's high school career, he's determined to...well, he's not determined to do a whole lot except for maybe reconciling with his ex-girlfriend, Cassidy. A no-holds-barred alcoholic (though never once does the word appear in the book), Sutter spends his days cutting his 7Up with whiskey, nearly failing algebra, and thinking about girls. A bender one weekend turns out to be serendipitous, as it lands him in the lawn of Aimee Finecky. Aimee's not really Sutter's type of girl. She's shy and geeky and not very outspoken. She's also good at math, a fact Sutter uses to get to spend more time with her. As time passes, Sutter grows further away from his best friend (who went and got himself a girlfriend) and closer to Aimee, even though he's convinced himself that she's not really the type of girl he could fall for. Aimee and Sutter are both good and bad for each other, and the best and worst parts of both their personalities come to a head at the prom, when Aimee asks Sutter to do the thing he is most afraid of: make a commitment to her.

Why you'll love it: This is one of those books that doesn't really hit you until after you've closed the cover and maybe gone to check your email, fed the cats, and picked it up again. Then you realize that Tharp has created one of the most fully human characters you've seen in a long time. Sutter's kindness is as strong as his cruelty. He acts nonchalant, like living in the now is the best thing ever, but as you read on you realize he harbors some great fears and insecurities about his family and friends. At heart, Sutter is not a bad guy. It's not like in Chris Lynch's Inexcusable where Keir has to keep telling the reader he's a "nice guy" when it's blatantly obvious he's not. Sutter is deeply misguided, yes, and lives only for the now, but you read the book and think that in the end, there's hope that he'll give his life some direction. You want it for him. Sutter shows the reader that the smart kids don't all grow up to go to perfect colleges, or even want to. And despite the vast amounts of liquor, Tharp doesn't waste the reader's time on lecturing about the bad bad, one-drink-and-you'll-die side effects of drinking that have plagues YA novels of the past. Instead, he shows how liquor affects Sutter's thoughts and actions and leaves the reader to conclude whether or not alcohol consumption is a problem for Sutter.

When I next update my "great guy reads" list, this is so going on it.

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