Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Co-review: As Simple As Snow

Gregory Galloway's first novel, As Simple As Snow, has a deceptive title. There is nothing simple about either the story or it's characters, and the title itself comes to have multiple meanings by the time the novel is finished.

Galloway's approach is unconventional in many respects. The story is told as a first person narrative, but we are never given the narrator's name. In fact, his name is censored on the few occasions it's used, but there is evidence to suggest it is Galloway himself. Why? I don't know. Because he could, I guess. But that's one indication that the reader should expect the unexpected when reading this story.

Whatever his name is, the narrator's boring life is forever changed by Anna, a new girl who moves to town at the beginning of his sophomore year. She hangs out with the Goths -- a group he ordinarily avoids -- but attracts his attention with her colorful and engaging personality. (It doesn't hurt that she's cute, too.) Anna is full of paradoxes. She gets D's in every subject, but is incredibly smart and knows more about every subject than anyone he knows. Her insatiable curiosity seems to apply particularly to artistic and historical figures, and she soon begins giving him riddles and games to solve that require him to get outside of his comfort zone and learn more about the world around him. Her Goth attire and obsession with ghosts and obituaries (she writes one for each member of the small town) seem morbid and gloomy, but she is generally a happy person who appears optimistic about the future and more full of life than anyone else in town.

Things go well for several months (meaning they fall in love, if you can say that with a straight face), until she mysteriously disappears a week before Valentine's Day, leaving nothing but her dress laid out next to a hole in the ice of the frozen river. Her body is never found, and the narrator is torn between his need to get over her and live his life and the possibility that she is still alive and this is only an elaborate game she is setting up. That idea is further supported when he starts receiving messages that seem to come from her and he -- together with the reader -- desperately tries to reconstruct and solve whatever puzzle she has created.

Just as a reminder, in order to discuss this book openly in the co-review, we may give away spoilers!

Caren: First, I just have to ask. Was this supposed to be a young adult novel? The age of the characters and coming-of-age theme would certainly support that. But the sex and use of the f-word seemed way too adult in my opinion. Is that more typical of young adult novels these days? My library had the book catalogued under adult fiction, but the audio version under youth. So apparently they couldn't decide either!

Jenny: I wondered the exact same thing but my library said adult fiction, which seemed more accurate. I don't know what I was expecting from this book since I read a summary about it months ago and I put it on my to-read list without thinking too much about it. I was expecting adult fiction, but was surprised to see that it had more young adult themes. Just another puzzle with this book.

Speaking of puzzles, I like them and find them to be fascinating when they are interwoven in fiction, but I appreciate it when I can either figure out the puzzle or the characters figure it out for me. This had neither. It was puzzle after puzzle with no solution. It was irksome.

Caren: Yeah, I was pretty irritated with the ending. I stayed up late one night to finish it because as the suspense grew closer to the end I couldn't put it down. So to find out that nothing gets resolved felt like a mean trick! And I mean, nothing! Not what happened to Anna. Not why she hated Mr. Devon. Not who was giving her bruises. Not what was going on with Carl's dad and why he was even a part of the story. Nothing.

I don't mind enigmatic endings where every loose end isn't tied up and there are multiple ways to interpret events. Sometimes those are the best endings. But this time I wasn't very attached to the characters, so the only thing drawing me on was the anticipation of getting answers and then those answers never came. Very frustrating. The ending wasn't bad, necessarily. It did end with a lot of hope for a fresh start and the narrator's escape from the suffocating dullness of his parents' dysfunctional life. But the whole thing just felt too cerebral for me. Like something I would read and dissect in a postmodern fiction class, but not necessarily enjoy in the process.

Jenny: I agree with you completely. This could have been an amazing mystery. It could have been like John Green's book Paper Towns that I read some time ago. In Green's book, the story is really similar, with the crazy out-of-the-box girl and her puzzles she leaves behind when she suddenly disappears, but it is so much more satisfying. But no, Galloway decided not to tie up any loose ends and leave us all scratching our heads.

The only reason I can come up with why Galloway wrote it the way he did is because not all puzzles are solved and not all questions are answered. There are plenty of people in the world who lose a loved one and never find out what happened to them. Maybe the point was to observe what happened to the narrator as he grieved. I have no idea. I don't mind reading a book that needs analyzing, but I didn't particularly like this book so I'm less enthused about picking it apart. The characters weren't very likable.

Caren: Note to self: Check out Paper Towns. Satisfying is a good description for what was missing in this one. And sometimes I felt like I was missing something important. Like, why the ambiguity about the narrator's name? What was the point of that? But since I didn't really care about the characters or the story, I didn't really care that much about the cryptic things he did with it.

Another thing I thought was odd was his portrayal of small town life. I grew up in a small town about the size as the one in the story and while some of the things rang true, a lot really didn't fit. He describes a three-story high school, but none of the small towns I'm familiar with can justify a three-story high school building. And all the cliques? I counted at least eight different groups (he names jocks, bandoids, arty types, 4-H'ers, geeks, bandoids, speech and debate team, and Goths). But in my experience, a small town high school doesn't have enough students to support that many different cliques. The jocks are often also the kids who get good grades, play in the band, participate in the arts, do 4-H on the side, etc. There's a lot of overlap between disciplines because there are so few kids to spread around. So that seemed like an unrealistic view of small town high school life. (Though the football coach who gave alcohol to his players definitely fit.)

So, what are your thoughts on what happened to Anna? It's clear that she planned her disappearance, but did she commit suicide or just run off?

Jenny: First I have to say that I'm glad you know stuff about small towns because I grew up in a large suburb of a major city, so I totally didn't catch any of those inconsistencies about small towns. Very interesting. I wonder if the author even knew anything about small towns or if he just needed the high school to exist a certain way so he threw aside any small town characteristics and did what he wanted.

Okay, as far as Anna goes, I think she ran away. I think all her hinting around about holding her breath in cold water was just another cryptic puzzle, along with the dress on the ice. Oh man, all the puzzles are making me tired. I think Anna was way too insatiable about life to do away with it. I think there might have been an abusive situation either between her and Mr. Devon or between her and her dad (bruises on her arms? weird situation with the ladder?) or between her and the jock/goth guy whose name I can't remember. I think she wanted a dramatic exit. If that's the case, what a selfish kid. The torture she put her parents and the narrator through is unbelievably selfish. This girl cannot be mentally healthy.

Caren: I agree. I don't think she committed suicide either, because that would be way too mediocre for her. And what you said about her insatiable appetite for life wouldn't fit with suicide. Her theatrics -- though interesting -- just proved how immature she was, and how easily discarded her relationship with the narrator was. Does the final obituary indicate that she plans on tracking him for the next 14 years and then re-entering his life? No matter how you look at it she was definitely a disturbed girl!

Add it all up and I'm pretty sure I won't be trying anything else from this author anytime soon!


  1. When I started reading the description for this book, I had to double check that it wasn't a review for Paper Towns again. The story sounds so familiar. I think I'll probably pass on this one. I get really annoyed with books that solve nothing, especially when there's really not a lot of other redeeming qualities. I just read "The Lovely Bones" and was annoyed with that one, too, for similar reasons. Thanks for doing these awesome reviews.

  2. I read this about a year ago and found myself nodding through your whole review. It was a good theme, and Stargirl was likable (though not at first, because I thought her quirky individuality was just for attention and not genuine). But at the same time I didn't find this book all that special. I know some people adore this book, but it was just okay for me.

    I read the sequel and I didn't like it as much. I think what made Stargirl so interesting was looking at her through Leo's eyes -- but Love, Stargirl is from Stargirl's perspective. I felt like there were lots more quirkiness and it got to feeling that "normal" was the new "weird." And it all seemed pretty melodramatic. Yeah, not a fan.

    I recently read a juvenile-lit book that reminded me a little of Stargirl. It was called Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanan -- it was about breaking out of your comfort zone (which is so often imposed by your peers) and being true to yourself. It's a love story but also explores themes like family. A really cute, quick read.