Wednesday, November 18

How It's Done - Christine Kole MacLean

Grace feels stifled by the expectations of her religious father - he's so sure about who she is and what she should do that Grace doesn't feel as though she can object. But when he considers her good behaviour of over two months is insufficient to outweigh breaking her curfew by five minute, causing her father to forbid her to go the the senior concert, Grace is primed for rebellion. Liv, her best friend, convinces Grace to go with her to a college literature class for extra credit Liv badly needs if she's ever going to escape her alcoholic parents. Slipping out part way through for a toilet break, Grace meets Michael - witty, urbane and over a decade older, Michael's a lecturer at the university.
When they meet again, by chance, at a coffee shop a brief attraction becomes something different, and Grace loses herself in a relationship with a man who challenges her, attracts her, makes her feel things she never dreamt of, and who offers her a way out. The question she doesn't ask is - into what?
MacLean sustains a strong degree of tension throughout How It's Done - Grace is not only torn between the traditions she was raised to respect and new mores Michael confronts her with, but also a growing awareness of her parents' marriage as a distinct entity, and the demands of a friend who expects favours Grace is uncomfortable asking for.
I found elements of How It's Done reminded me of Twilight, primarily the concept of a love-starved, insecure adolescent girl who, despite the protests of her family, is bewitched by an attractive, attentive older man with a dark side. MacLean manages to illustrate some of the concerns I had with that series here. Michael is not a blatantly bad person - he doesn't beat Grace or abuse her, but his motives are complex and he's not entirely honest.
However, my recollections of my reading experience are strongly overshadowed by a list of twenty discussion questions at the end of the novel. While I can see the need for analysis when a book is read for English literature class, or for a book group that's unable to come up with their own questions, or a texturally deep novel that has sold widely and that demands deeper analysis, in this case it came off to me as presumptuous and annoying. The questions weren't particularly insightful ("How are Grace's father and Michael the same or different?"), and I didn't think there was enough going on below the surface to warrant the inclusion of the questions. I am not, I acknowledge, the likely target audience of this YA novel, but it still rankled. If you decide to read it, consider stopping at the novel's end. - Alex

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