#2: Life: An Exploded Diagram by Mal Peet
A few months after I read Life: An Exploding Diagram, I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Peet make a small speech regarding his book. Without trying too hard to paraphrase, the gist of Mr. Peet’s message was that despite trying very hard to bore, perplex, or perhaps even offend an American audience with the content of his latest book, by gum, here was an awards committee that not only read the darn thing, but decided to give it an honor.
This book spans generations, straddles genres, is questionably even young adult literature, consists of only about 65% narrative, and stars a usually heroic young American President in a decidedly unflattering light.
But I love love loved it anyway; it’s one of those books that you tell everyone to read even though they might not like it and then your heart might break, but then they all do love it, your picky friends, your not-so-picky friends. Your sister leaves you a voicemail asking “Clem and Frankie end up together… right?” and you know immediately who she is talking about. And it warms your damn heart, restores your faith in the world a bit, that books like this can exist and you can share them with the ones you love.
Let me tell you this about my grad school experience… early in 2009, I was putting concerted effort into “reading widely across genres.” I gave myself 10 “slots” for books each month, and tried to fill in the first five with different genres – YA Fiction, Juvenile Nonfiction, Adult Fiction, etc. By April, I had set my academic course (aka wrote some deposit checks) on a path towards a children’s literature degree. By April, I’d also become weary of “reading widely.” It was hard. Uncomfortable. I would rather just read and re-read my favorite books and authors, ya know?
So one of the things I found exciting about a children’s lit degree was the prospect of a Syllabus! I longed for someone to tell me what to read (see also: Marriage). And although I watched new releases pass me by for three years, and every semester I reached a point where all I wanted was to read ANYTHING that wasn’t 19th century/realism/taking place on Mars, I discovered so many genres and authors that I never would have given a second chance otherwise.
See: Historical Fiction. If you had asked me in 2009 if I would like to read a book about teenagers in Scotland in 1952 (that starts with 50 or so pages detailing THEIR parents’ and grandparents’ heritage and history), and that can also legitimately classified as a book ABOUT the Cuban Missile Crisis? I would have certainly laughed mightily, either in my mind or later after you left the room. Perhaps I would discredit your future book recommendations completely. Who knows, it was 2009, I was ruthless back then.
However, it is 2012, and I just read Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram and I loved it I loved it I loved it so much. It is everything I described above, yes, but don’t be afraid. The family heritage bit is actually pretty brief, and mostly humorous. The historical retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis is actually interesting, especially for me, who felt suddenly shamed to realize that even after XX years of history courses, I knew NOTHING about this incredible moment in US history. The narrator is a likeable, knowledgeable, and cheeky guide through this all.
But what wraps it all up in a delicious package is The LOVE STORY. Oh, there is a love story, a first love story, that is so evocative, so touching, and at times, downright steamy. Peet knows what he is doing when he alternates chapters here, teasing you into being interested in JFK because you know there’s another chapter of romance when you finish.
And the ending. Agh, the ending! This is a terrible review, I realize, but after you read this ending, you will think that every other novel’s conclusion was more of a lame fizzle, a drag-out, a ramble on. Peet? He has written here an Ending, capital-E-, practically Hollywood worthy, throw your book down and gasp-worthy.
Gush gush gush glow glow glow, please drop what you are doing and pretend like you are desperate to learn more about JFK’s early presidency so you will not waste another moment of your life not reading this book! Consider it your syllabus for the month.