Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

In Elizabeth Laban's The Tragedy Paper, readers will discover a coming-of-age story set in a traditional location (boarding school) with a familiar setup (love triangle) that turns everything you think you know about this sort of book on its ear. Laban might be giving readers a familiar setting and situations but her characters are so thoughtful and the plot just twisty enough that she manages a page-turner out of the quietest of stories. The conceit is straightforward: Tim met Vanessa while stuck at the airport on his way to his new school. After sharing the sort of fun (and mostly chaste) boy-meets-girl story everyone dreams of, they continue on their separate ways, and he discovers she is not only a fellow student but dating the school's most popular boy. They become good friends as Tim also slowly becomes enmeshed in the school's senior class tradition. It is on one fateful night involving the seniors that he connects with Duncan, the underclassman whose story is really at the heart of the novel.

Laban introduces Duncan in the very beginning as the one who figures it all out. He knows how Tim's school story ended the previous year, but not how it began, and along with the reader, he learns all the sordid history via a series of CDs that Tim has left behind for him in his dorm room as part of a departing senior gift, another school tradition. Duncan has a small but powerful connection to Tim that has left him unsure about his own future, and so hearing Tim's voice, finding out why everything happened the previous year, is critical to his own wellbeing. In the middle of all of this looms the big senior assignment: the "tragedy" paper. Talk of tragedy permeates the senior English class, literary examples are tossed about throughout the text, and Duncan, in particular, is overwhelmed with a desire to get the paper right. Laban makes clear though that tragedy is in the eye of the beholder, and also that while it might reach epic literary proportions for some students, for others the tragic is all too real and in danger of eclipsing every other facet of their lives.

It's important to note that nothing huge takes place in The Tragedy Paper. There is a serious accident, and in both Tim and Duncan's narratives, there are students in trouble, but in comparison to a lot of contemporary YA fiction, the events here are subtle and familiar. Much of the book is about aspiring and struggling to find your way to the best sort of self, and the obstacles, both internal and external, that block your way. This novel is the very definition of powerful, and while it does not possess characters spouting the sort of fake witticisms that seem to crop up all over in teen books lately, they are nothing if not real. There are no villains in The Tragedy Paper, just a lot of wishing you can get things right; a lot of trying to do the best you can.

Cross posted from my Bookslut YA Column.

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