Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Anything But Ordinary

Hobbs, Valerie. 2007. Anything But Ordinary.

When he was fourteen, Bernie Federman fell in love. And he never fell out. Except once, almost. But that was four years and a lifetime later. By that time Winifred (she was calling herself Wini) had become somebody he hardly knew anymore. An ordinary girl. (3)

When he was thirteen, Bernie Federman had no idea who he was. Was he the clone of Magnus Morris, his maternal great-great-grandfather, the famous inventor (a brain) who made and lost a million dollars before the age of twenty-three? His mother said he was. Or was he simply the son of a man who worked in a tire shop from six a.m. until six p.m., and was snoring in his La-Z-Boy halfway through Wheel of Fortune? (4)

So the long and short of it was this:
When Bernie Federman was fourteen, he fell in love.
When he was fifteen, he saw his first naked girl.
When he was sixteen, he began to think that someday he might just write a novel.
When he was seventeen, his mother died. Bernie fell from number two in his graduating class to number forty-three, and by graduation had slipped to the muddy bottom. Winifred, of course, was number one.

With a title like “Anything But Ordinary” you expect something un-ordinary or extraordinary. But that’s not what you get. While there were certain phrases that stuck-out in Anything But Ordinary which made me feel Hobbs was a talented writer, overall, I thought the plot was very typical, very standard, very ordinary, very average. Perhaps I can best illustrate what I’m talking about. Sometimes movie trailers have all the good bits of the movie. You see thirty seconds or a minute of what the movie holds. If the movie doesn’t offer anything more than that--if everything else is just okay--then you feel slightly disappointed. You almost wished that the trailer had been the movie you saw. I can pick probably six or seven quotes that I enjoyed, really enjoyed, from the text. But as far as the rest of the text, the plot, the characters, the pacing....everything was just ordinary. It has all been done before. This is All by Aidan Chambers. Megan McCafferty’s Second Helpings and Charmed Thirds. Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky. When you use the formulaic plot of highschool sweethearts who face troubles, temptations, and obstacles with their first year of college--particularly relationship problems because of distance or “changing” personalities, then you need a little something extra to make it worth the reader’s time. What is different about this couple? This narrator? This story? What hasn’t been said and done before? In this case, it was very little. Bernie is the boyfriend. He’s a good guy, essentially, but he’s a little lost at the beginning of the story. Wini or Winifred is the girlfriend. She’s a good girl, essentially, but she’s a little lost at the end of the story. The two had always planned to go to college together, but after the death of his mother, Bernie loses focus in his schoolwork. He becomes depressed and worried about his alcoholic father. He feels that his life really is fated to be one of working in a tire shop or as a mechanic. Something “hands-on” whether than intellectually stimulating. Gone are his dreams of becoming a writer, of changing the world with his words. Winifred cannot, will not except Bernie as he now is. She wants the Bernie-that-used-to-be. She gets accepted into a college in California--as far away from New Jersey as a girl can get. Bernie is upset, crushed, disappointed, frustrated that his girl wants to put that much distance between them. So as the semester goes on, he makes plans to drive to visit her in college. Winifred is changing. And not for the better. In high school, she’d never been one to follow the crowd. Never been one to care about popularity. Never been one to party. Never been one to act wild and crazy. But things are different now. She wants to be just like her roommates, wants to fit in, wants to be part of the popular bunch. Gone are her worries about school, studying, and tests. She changes to an easier major gives up on her dreams, and decides to live it up. Living it up includes getting a brand new look and a brand new wardrobe. When Bernie and Wini meet, they’re two different people. Gone is the girlfriend he loved, instead he has a copycat of a flirt on his hands. Not that she’s flirting with him. She thinks he’s the scum of the earth. Not good enough for the new her. But while Wini’s life is spiraling downwards, Bernie begins attending classes. He finds he likes college. He finds he likes English classes especially. And the teacher, the TA, takes a liking to him as well. He is intelligent. He’s witty. He’s determined. Now it’s Wini who’s the loser, while he is getting noticed as the “smart” one. This role reversal doesn’t sit well with her. Can the two ever come together as equals now that so much has happened? Can Wini ever find herself? Will the two ever get past this awkwardness that exists between them? The book closes open-endedly. Optimists can see that the two will find their way back to each other. Realists can see that there are many many different ways the story could end.

One of the reasons I think I disliked Anything But Ordinary was the fact that it was told in third person. I like first person narratives. They feel “real.” They feel “genuine.” The connection between narrator and reader feels more solid. It had a distant narrator--or should I say narrators in this case since it bounced back and froth from Winifred and Bernie--that just felt hollow. Another reason I disliked it was that it started off strong. The first two or three--possibly even four chapters--were good bordering on great. If you had asked me at that moment of time if I thought the book was good, I would have answered an enthusiastic yes. But as the narrative went on, it lost something. It stopped working (for me). And it became a pale shadow of its promising beginning.

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