It’s unusual for me to be late for anything. I arrive almost everywhere at least 40 minutes early – meetings, dates…back in the late nineteenth century when people still asked me on dates… But I have to confess to crashing the Sarah Dessen party when it’s already in full swing. Look, you lot are already at the singing-’round-the-ole-piano stage! Fortunately for me it looks like it’s going to be kicking (do people still say that? I don’t get out much) for many years to come, so I’ll just sidle in here and join the celebration.
Another thing you should know is that I have a deep fear of spoilers, which has two consequences here: 1. I will be spending much of the party sticking my fingers in my ears and singing lalalalala because I want to discover the whole of Dessen’s bibliography for myself; 2. I’m only going to talk about the excellence of the very first chapter of one of Dessens’ books: The Truth About Forever. Surely I can’t write an entire blog post about just one chapter, you say! But sweet Macy Queen gives us so much to think about.
The magic of this first chapter is its subtlety and its faithfulness to character and story. Some authors will use their first chapter like a stale baguette to hit you over the head with, terrified that if they don’t hit you hard enough, you won’t listen. They of little faith – you want to stick around, you didn’t need the beating! You need to look back at that first chapter, when the story is over, and think how true to the book it was.
If Dessen had wanted to shock you into sticking with the book, she’d have opened with Macy’s dad lying in the road having his heart pumped, and with Macy’s shock and desperation and the whole tragic mess of it bursting into an ordinary morning. But that’s not what Macy is capable of at this point, and it’s not what the story is about. Macy lost something profound that morning – not just her dad (as if that weren’t enough) but her ability to make sense of the world. Dessen knows that that’s where the book has to start – not with Macy’s gut feelings about life and death and loss but with the seemingly unfeeling Jason, to whom she has latched on.
Jason doesn’t do emotion – he does lists and cold, hard facts. She asks him what Macbeth is about and he writes: Murder, Power, Marriage, Revenge, Prophecy, Politics. It’s there in black and white. And here is the strong but subtle set-up for the story, in Macy’s words: “All I’d wanted for so long was for someone to explain everything that had happened to me in this same way. To label it neatly on a page: this leads to this leads to this. I knew, deep down, it was more complicated than that, but, watching Jason, I was hopeful. He took the mess that was Macbeth and fixed it, and I had to wonder if he might, in some small way, be able to do the same for me. So I moved myself closer to him, and I’d been there ever since.”
Dessen lets us know very early on that Macy is in for a big journey – and that’s good; we need to know that; we’re even allowed at this point to be sure that she’s going to be okay in the end, because the important question is how she gets from damaged, rigid Macy to “End of the Story Macy”. She’s immediately accessible, because Dessen allows us to see small hints that Macy is under Jason’s wing not because she is of the same mindset but because of her circumstances. Once he is gone, the possibilities are exciting. Any approval of Jason goes hurtling out of the window when Macy says goodbye to him at the airport and tells him she’ll miss him. “It’s only eight weeks,” he replies – seeya, Jason.
As soon as Jason is packed off at the airport, Macy peeks a tiny way out of her shell. Her description of life as ‘the girl who saw her father die’ – the way that it follows her around, a label she can’t shake – seems entirely real. I know it not from experiencing what Macy has been through but having watched a dear friend lose her father. Here’s a confession: I did not know what to say to my friend. I thought if I couldn’t find the perfect words, my job would be to omit saying the wrong words, and so inevitably I ended up saying not much at all. How stupid, but perhaps how universal – as if our creeping around the subject, or giving The Face could do anything but alienate the bereaved. I’m ashamed of it, and I was desperate to see who Macy would meet and what she’d experience that would enable her to come out of her silent depression.
Dessen is clever not to end the chapter on that note, and it gives us a clear sign that she is not a doom-and-gloom writer but one who believes in hope – not unrealistic, saccharine hope, but in lights at the end of tunnels; in the pleasure of reading a story that contains sadness, thoughtfulness, but ultimately the possibility of joy. When Macy confesses – and it does feel like a confession, knowing what we already do about how she is in public, so as readers we are privileged – about the EZ boxes, she shows us a bit of the life that was in her dad, and which carries on in her. Things are not as they should be, but we’re going to move forward – we’re going to open that EZ box. How could anyone resist that?
Emily Gale’s debut YA novel is forthcoming from Chicken House. You can also check out her blog at http://mummywrites.blogspot.com.
Tomorrow – Jennifer Jabley, author of soon to be released Lipstick Apology.