Block's most famous books, "Weetzie Bat" and "Witch Baby," are pass or fail tests. You're either enchanted by them and therefore willing to forgive some overblown language and bursts of woo, or you're knocked over by waves of purple prose and nauseated by all the freakin' adorableness.
I tend toward cranky and despise woo, so I was as surprised as anyone to find myself in love with these two books.
For their sake, I keep giving Block a try now and then. I read "Pink Smog" and "Necklace of Kisses" and "Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys" and didn't like any of them. I started "Missing Angel Juan" and couldn't finish it. Ditto "The Hanged Man" and "The Rose and the Beast." They seemed to have all the annoyingness of those first two books and none of the enchantment.
I'm kind of a dork, so I put a library hold on "Teen Spirit" as soon as I knew it existed.
And it turned out to be really good. "I'm happy I read that" good. "I might just read that again" good.
No out-there, overly poetic prose. No long long lists. No cringe-inducing “touching” moments.
Instead, Block uses straightforward language and believable dialogue to let her teenage heroine Julie tell the story of what happens when her grandmother dies, her mother disappears into grief, and Julie struggles to find her place in the world.
Her only friend is a boy who, like her, is drawn toward death. They’re not suicidal; they just keep straining to see past the barrier to the other side. Even their favorite show, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” is peopled as much by the living dead as by the just-plain living.
I can’t say much more about the plot, because you need to be surprised by an element that dominates the story starting from about a third of the way through. There is technically a love triangle, but I swear it’s not annoying and turns out to be beautifully symbolic. Julie has moments of worrying about her looks, because she has some unusual features and like the rest of us she longs to be just-plain conventionally beautiful; but after a while she accepts the evidence that she’s attractive, and doesn’t spend centuries wondering what on earth any boy would see in her (coughBELLAcough).
“Teen Spirit” touches a few of my annoyance buttons. I really dislike when writers seem to forget how money works. Julie’s mother loses her job. For reasons we’re never told, she’d been unable to pay the mortgage for months even before that happened. Her house is foreclosed on, and she and Julie move to a small apartment.
Okay. But this is Southern California (my own personal stomping grounds). How are they paying even for a two-bedroom apartment close enough to Beverly Hills High that Julie can legally attend? I know from personal experience that not all of Beverly Hills is Beverly Hills-expensive. I also know that apartments in even half-decent neighborhoods are not cheap. Julie’s mother doesn’t get a job for months. They don’t have money from the house because they lapsed on the mortgage. How the heck are they paying any rent at all, let alone what has to be at least a thousand dollars a month (probably more)?
Julie is a believable character – a smart girl, a reader, a perceptive observer. She has psychic gifts that she struggles to understand and utilize. I like all that.
She does occasionally suffer from a condition I just ran into in the heroine of “Longbourne”: namely, she’s insistently inquisitive in general, but drops the questions when pushing farther would reveal too much too soon plot-wise. That’s lazy storytelling, authors. Yes, your readers notice. We’re not idiots. We’re asking the same questions your characters were before you made them stop for no stated reason.
And yeah, there are lapses into telling over showing. Having to leave the house she grew up in, a house that symbolizes a very happy childhood and her adored grandmother, is wrenching for Julie. “I wanted to tie myself to the door of the house so that the bank would have to let us stay,” she says. Which is good. But it’s followed by, “I couldn’t stand the idea of another loss.”
We kind of got that from the previous sentence, actually. Have a little faith in us, okay? We’re readers. We’re paying attention. We promise.
“Teen Spirit” isn’t plagued by these errors. If anything, they stick out because the rest of the book is so strong. The story is compelling. It carried me along to an ending that made me want to cheer (and I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I am not a cheerleader). At the risk of sounding like an after-school special, I have to say this book really does teach important lessons about love and survival and making your way in the world, as well as the importance of knowing when to ask for help and knowing when you can rely on your own strength.
Oh, and if you like your reads terrifying, Julie has a nightmare that’s probably going to give me
nightmares for the rest of the week. The scariest part of it is a man simply pointing to a swimming pool.
So, yeah. Read this book.