Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: Willow by Julia Hoban

Title:  Willow
Author:  Julia Hoban
Publisher:  Speak (Penguin)
Genre: YA
Paperback: 336 pages
ISBN: 0142416665
Summary from Goodreads:
Seven months ago, on a rainy March night, sixteen year- old Willow’s parents died in a horrible car accident. Willow was driving. Now her older brother barely speaks to her, her new classmates know her as the killer orphan girl, and Willow is blocking the pain by secretly cutting herself. But when one boy—one sensitive, soulful boy—discovers Willow’s secret, it sparks an intense relationship that turns the “safe” world Willow has created for herself upside down. 
Told in an extraordinary fresh voice, Willow is an unforgettable novel about one girl’s struggle to cope with tragedy, and one boy’s refusal to give up on her.

Overall rating: 7/10
To buy this book: IndieBound | The Book Depository | Powell's | Amazon
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Julia Hoban's Willow is the story of a teenage girl who has turned to cutting as a means of avoiding the intense grief and pain she feels regarding her parents' tragic death.  Willow takes the first few steps out of her emotionally-guarded comfort zone as she begins to let Guy, a student who shares her interest in books and anthropology, get to know her.  But will these new emotions bring her guilt and heartache flooding to the surface and drive her toward a dangerous breakdown?  Or will Guy's interest in her welfare help Willow acknowledge her pain, forgive herself, and make healthier choices?

What I Liked:
-    This book is the first full novel I've read about cutting, and I found it both heartbreaking and enlightening.  The author treated the subject with an honest realism that helped give me a totally new understanding of the self-destructive behavior that I'd previously associated with reckless desperation rather than as a means of self-preservation.
-    I liked that Willow's strained relationship with her brother played such a significant roll in the story.  YA novels don't explore teenage protagonists' interactions with their adult siblings very often, and I enjoyed seeing that explored extensively in this book.  Since their parents' death, Willow's brother has quietly withdrawn from their former relationship, and neither of them is able to share their pain with the other.  Instead, he has silently taken on the roll of her guardian and seemingly left the memory of their parents behind.  I found their relationship believable and moving.
-     Guy makes a very compelling and lovable romantic hero.  He is an avid reader who truly listens to Willow and desperately wants to help ease her pain and to protect her from her own self-destructive habits.  He is protective but not controlling, and the more he gets to know Willow the more he comes to care about her.  Their romance is of the slow-building, friendship-based variety, and he really is an endearing character.
-      The high school and college campus settings feel realistic, as do the secondary characters who each have their own set of pressures and challenges to deal with.  Every moment with David and his wife and daughter felt particularly genuine and relatable, and Willow's classmates and co-workers also had believable dialogue and their own distinct motivations and personalities.
-     I enjoyed the allusions to Shakespeare's The Tempest, and I enjoyed all of Guy and Willow's conversations at the library.
-     The final sentence of this novel is excellent.

What I Wished:
-      I wish this book had been written in a different narrative style because I find third person, present tense very awkward to read.  Unless the book is a suspenseful thriller, third person, present tense narratives tend to seem unnatural and distracting to me.  I read this book aloud to my husband, and unfortunately that particular  narrative style is a little reminiscent of melodramatic Dick and Jane books when read aloud.  A few scattered quotes from p. 58 & 59:  "Willow closes the book with a sigh."..."..Willow is overcome by a wave of loneliness."..."Willow smiles a little."..."Willow sits up and stares at the other girl in disbelief."..."Willow shakes her head."..."Willow isn't stupid."..."Willow rummages through her bag in search of her library ID."    Too much Willow this and Willow that and simply not enough tension to justify the present tense narrative for 336 pages.  Plus, the third person point-of-view puts an awkward separation between the reader and the protagonist, almost as if you are hearing a sports reporter calling the shots in a game rather than immersing yourself in a story and getting to know the characters.  It may have been intended to reflect Willow's own detachment from her life and emotions, but I think that a first person, present tense narrative would have made this story more of a page-turner.
-     I wanted the heroine to be more likable.  I sympathized with Willow's grief and understood the reasons she pushed people away, but her bitter, pessimistic attitude and her self-absorbed nature occasionally made this book feel like a bit of a chore to read.  While I could see that her self-loathing and paranoid nature were critical to telling this story about a grieving girl on a long and difficult journey toward recovery, I was sometimes tempted to set Willow aside just to take a break from her bleak attitude. 
-     *spoiler ahead*  (scoll over the following text to read it)  I felt that the story would have been stronger if Guy hadn't expected that their having slept together would make such a sudden difference where Willow's cutting was concerned.  After all that he had been through with her, it seemed like an odd assumption for him to make.  While I enjoyed the underlying theme about the redemptive nature of opening yourself up to love and felt that Guy and Willow having sex fit comfortably within the context of the story, I was not so receptive to the concept of sex somehow having a disproportionately powerful impact on decreasing Willow's reliance on her self-destructive behavior.  
-     Overall, I would say that the issue of cutting was handled thoughtfully throughout this book, but choosing to have the healing power of love be the protagonist's primary method for working toward a healthier future seemed to weaken the story a bit for me.  I don't mean to imply that authors have any responsibility to make their protagonists roll models because I truly don't believe they are under any obligation to do so.  But I personally would have enjoyed this story's conclusion more if Willow had begun to make a wider variety of proactive choices toward leaving cutting behind her.  I did feel that the portrayal of her character and her decisions was an honest one, and I appreciated that the changes she chose to make happened gradually and realistically.  I am sure there are many cutters out there who could benefit from knowing that they are not alone and reading about a character who shares their compulsion to indulge in self-mutilation as a means of self-preservation, but I felt that having the final hopeful element of this story rely so heavily on stumbling across the perfect boy who will love you and push you toward a healthier lifestyle limited this book's impact.  I hope that people struggling with such overwhelming pain won't pin their hopes on waiting around for Prince Charming, but will seek out help in other ways too - confiding in friends, family members, or counselors, or calling a crisis hotline such as 1-800-DONT-CUT which is the S.A.F.E (Self Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives hotline.

Willow is about a girl who is overwhelmed by her grief.  She deals with her grief in a self-destructive way, and   her cutting habit is not glossed over but is described in explicit detail.  The author handles the topic with honesty and a blunt realism, so this may not be the book to pick up if you are looking for a cheerful narrator or neatly-resolved happily-ever-after ending.  On the other hand, if you are interested in reading about a touching romance, if you would like to learn more about what motivates some people to rely on cutting, or if you enjoy the realism of hopefully-ever-after endings, then this book might suit your interests perfectly.  I found Willow to be a difficult heroine to like, but the romantic elements of the story were compelling, and I was pleased to see Willow begin to take steps toward recovery by the end of the book.  Despite the difficulties I had with the narrative style, it is virtually impossible not to see this story through to the last page once you've become invested in the characters.  And this book has a fantastic last line.


Chachic said...

I'm curious about this one since I've never read a book about cutting and I don't understand why people do it. I know that in high school, a lot of people used cut themselves and I always wondered why. Maybe I should give this book a try.

H Woodhurst said...

I believe this an engaging way to get kids to talk about cutting or any other harming actions to themselves or others. As an avid reader, though, I'm not much into a depressing main character. I like to read to escape from real world issues. But as I said this would be an excellent way for teenagers, who this is supposed to be for, a good jumping off point to talk about such things.

As for the third person view, Violet, I perfer it myself. :D With a first person you are stuck in tiny bit of the world, in my opinion :D, but then Science Fiction/Fantasy tends to lean toward 3rd person a lot more then modern/urban/teen books, so this is probably a good observation.

I'm totally amazed at how many books you manage to read. Keep up the good work.

Candace said...

I actually hadn't noticed the third person narration. I mean, it wasn't something that bothered me at the time. But reading the brief quotes I can see how reading it aloud would bring that forth even more.
I know with visiting with the author about this book some of the reasons she did some of the things she did. And a lot of it is so that people can put themselves in Willow's shoes and become her. How that works is hard for me to understand clearly but yet her describing it to me made sense. I'm sorry I'm not really able to form the words to describe it to you though.
And although the book is about cutting I really felt like it could be anything self destructive that the person may be doing. It could just has easily been drug abuse. It comes about for the same sorts of reasons and the results, in a round about way, are similar.
I think you did a great review and did a good job of being honest in your take of it.
Oh, one thing that was getting to me as I read it as well was Willow was aggravating me as well with her complete and total lack of OOMPH. I mean, she was very negative and a bit hard to understand in some ways. At least in the beginning. So I can see how some wouldn't like her. She grew on me.

Violet said...

Chachic - I found it really eye-opening since I never really understood cutting and had no personal experience with it whatsoever.

H Woodhurst - I agree that this book would be a great way to open a conversation with teens about a very serious issue. I also fully agree with you regarding 3rd person narratives. :) In fact, nearly all of my favorite novels are 3rd person, past tense, and that tends to be my favorite narrative style. Most of Tamora Pierce's books, all of Cassandra Clare's books, and all of Jane Austen's books are just a few examples of 3rd person, past tense novels that I love. It is definitely a great narrative style for world-building and is not nearly so narrow a viewpoint as 1st person.

It is only 3rd person, present tense that I find awkward. In my opinion, present tense is challenging to pull off convincingly because it simply doesn't sound like the way we naturally tell our own stories in our day-to-day lives. We don't generally know which parts of our lives are story-worthy until after they happen. Present tense puts emphasis on the current moment throughout the duration of the story, and very few protagonists have such high-intensity lives that they can keep the tension up for the duration of a present tense novel. That said, I think it is much easier to pull off present tense in 1st person than in 3rd person because at least it places the reader up close to the narrator as the action unfolds in real-time.

For example, The Hunger Games is told in 1st person, present tense and it works well because the protagonist's life is in mortal danger throughout the novel and she rarely knows what is coming next, so the narration and POV work perfectly for that story. Jellicoe Road is another example of present tense narration that worked for me, again it was combined with a 1st person POV. In that case, the story alternated between a 1st person, present tense narration and excerpts from a manuscript which was written in 3rd person, past tense. The contrast worked well and the present tense portion of the narrative helped propel the novel forward with a great deal of anxiety-inducing mystery.

I think my aversion to 3rd person, present tense stems from the fact that we rarely describe life this way unless reporting on a sports event or a breaking news story that is unfolding before our eyes. I think that narrative style could work reasonably well in a short story, but in a novel-length story it keeps the tension uncomfortably high (or tediously low) throughout the book and it sounds a bit like you've stepped into a Dick and Jane book or an old noir detective movie with voice-over narration.

- continued below -

Violet said...

- continued -

Imagine following a character's entire day in 3rd person, present tense: "Mary walks into the kitchen looking for a snack. She thinks the bananas look delicious. She hopes they aren't too bruised. There is a knock on the door. Mary walks across the room to answer it and finds a man with a shotgun on her doorstep." Not only would it be exhausting and tedious to follow Mary's entire day (or week or month) as it unfolds, but the narrative style also seems to flatten the tension a bit because all the moments of Mary's play-by-play day would be given equal attention even though the shotgun-wielding guy at the door is clearly more exciting than her choice of snack. Keeping the 3rd person POV while switching to past tense, would allow the author more freedom to filter out the important moments, relaying only the story-worthy moments of their characters' lives. Mary's search for the perfect banana probably wouldn't make the cut. ;)

Keeping the present tense but switching to 1st person narration might also work reasonably well because although the description of 80% of the protagonist's day may still be on the tedious side, at least the reader would be placed directly in Mary's shoes and would have the benefit of connecting with the her emotional reactions to each moment (hunger as she heads to the kitchen, disappointment as she discovers that her banana is bruised, shock as she opens the door to discover the man with a gun).

Anyway, that is my two cents on narrative style. :) Third person, past tense tends to sound the most natural to me and seems to suit almost any story reasonably well. While third person, present tense tends to sound the most awkward to me, and I have yet to stumble across a novel in which it works exceedingly well.

Violet said...

Candace - First of all, thank you so much for bringing this book to my attention. It was your review of Willow that first put this book on my wishlist, and I am so glad to have read it. :) I agree with your comment that this story really could have been about any self-destructive behavior (like drug abuse or an eating disorder). I am glad it focused on cutting because I understood so little about cutting before reading this book. Prior to reading Willow, I had only read about one other fictional character who turned to cutting in times of distress (Lissa Dragomir in the Vampire Academy series). I had no personal experience with the topic and, although I recognized it as a coping mechanism, I thought of such behavior as intentionally reckless or (as Guy initially believes) as a sort of dress rehearsal for suicide. I never considered self-injury as a means of maintaining control over emotional pain or as a way of suppressing feelings that might otherwise be overwhelming. The concept of engaging in self-destructive behavior in the interest of self-preservation is both disturbing and fascinating to me, and I definitely won't be forgetting this book anytime soon.

Regarding Willow's lack of oomph, that did definitely make the beginning of the story a bit rough. She was almost sleepwalking through her life just waiting for the next emotional crisis that would send her in search of a private place to make use of her cutting supplies. In that way (as well as in her paranoia, her stash of supplies, and her sensuous reaction to the physical experience itself), cutting seemed very comparable to a drug addiction. And it was disheartening to see her spend her days coasting listlessly between one fix and the next. I sympathized with her from beginning to end, but I didn't really begin to like her until about two-thirds of the way into the book. Actually, that is probably another testament to Julia Hoban's skill as an author because Willow didn't begin to see past her own self-loathing & self-pitying attitude until around that point of the book, so perhaps my reaction to Willow was a reflection of her own feelings toward herself. Once she began to open up to Guy and to recognize her own importance a bit (to both Guy & David), she became much easier to like.

Adeeva Afsheen said...

Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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