Thursday, January 13, 2011

Review: Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde

This one's been on my TBR list for awhile, but it's such a slim book that I put off reading it for awhile after picking it up from the library - short books like this I usually finish up in less than two subway rides, leaving me bored and bookless for part of my commute home. But then I heard some Printz rumblings for this and figured that a lazy Saturday night spent in bed, where I was trying to rest and kick the last bit of my week-long cold, was the perfect time to pick it up.

Jumpstart the WorldWhen Elle's mother picks up a new boyfriend that doesn't want to deal with a teenager in the house, she's set up in her own apartment on the other side of New York City. For most almost-16 year olds, this would be a dream come true, but Elle's just angry that her mother is pushing her aside for the comfort of her newest boyfriend - who, by the way, is taking her mother on a cruise over Elle's 16th birthday. There are only two good things about the new apartment: getting to pick out a new cat (a scared, scarred black cat, the antithesis of everything her mother likes), and her new neighbors - specifically Frank, who may be older and has a girlfriend, but Elle can't help immediately forming a little crush on him.

The new boyfriend also doesn't want to pay for Elle's private school, so she's starting a new school year at a new school, where the only people interested in being friendly are a group of outsiders, most of whom happen to be gay.

When Elle isn't sure she wants to be friends with this group - not that she's homophobic or anything - Frank is the one that listens to her. Frank and his girlfriend invite Elle over for homemade chicken soup, and introduce her to the wonders of photography. Just as Elle begins to acknowledge she's falling for Frank and falling hard, she's shocked to discover that "Frank" hasn't always been Frank - he is, in fact, a transgendered man. The truth turns Elle's world upside down, forcing her to search for the true meanings of friendship and family.

The writing here is spare but thoughtful, and feels very much like we have a direct line to Elle's thoughts. On that level I can totally see why there was Printz buzz for this. On the other hand, there's a stunning lack of character development. Elle, Frank and Elle's new school friend, Wilbur, are the only three that get any sort of depth, but even Frank and Wilbur feel more like stock characters. Here's how bad it was for me: at one point, Elle's cat is sick and needs to be given antibiotics twice a day. At the same time, one of the other characters ends up in the hospital and Elle is spending most of her time there. During this dramatic time, all I could think was that she needed to keep giving the cat antibiotics or it was going to die. I know my great love of cats probably makes me biased, but I really shouldn't have more sympathy for a cat than human characters.

Hyde does do a good job presenting Frank as just another character and never slips into being too didactic about the particulars of trans life. Details of Frank's transition, and of continuing issues as part of his trans identity, are integrated into the story and only those bits that have an impact on what's happening at the moment are included. I note this because the last book I read with a transgendered character was Almost Perfect, which did stop to explain the minutiae of transitioning. However, the presence of a transgendered character is about the only similarity between the two novels (I still highly recommend Almost Perfect - and, of course, so did the Stonewall Award committee!).


Beth G. said...

How funny - I posted my review of _Jumpstart the World_ today, too. I *really* liked it. _Almost Perfect_ is on my TBR list, as soon as I get it on hold from the library!

Alex said...

I just read Beth's review and then yours. How different they are, yet both are good. Both made this sound like a book I would like to read, though I was sorry to see you thought some of the characters were too much like stock figures. That can flatten a story so much.
Both reviews were so insightful, thank you.

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Wow, interesting review! It's nice to see someone post a review that covers not only the things they loved, but the negatives as well. thanks for posting!

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