Friday, February 1, 2013

2014 Contenders: The Truth of Me, by Patricia MacLachlan

Patricia MacLachlan won the Newbery in 1986 for Sarah, Plain and Tall, and that's an award that's stood the test of time. It's sort of an odd book, however, one that's almost more tone poem than novel(la). The hypnotic, understated prose and the profound sense of place make it work even though not much actually happens in the book.

In some ways, it feels like the rest of MacLachlan's career (or at least her career as a fiction writer, rather than as an author of picture books) has been an attempt to recapture the magic of Sarah. Sometimes it's worked (Skylark) and sometimes it maybe hasn't worked so much (last year's Kindred Souls). Unfortunately, her newest effort, The Truth of Me, probably falls into the latter category.

The Truth of Me follows Robbie, the only child of two prominent classical musicians. He and his dog, Ellie, go to stay with his grandmother while his parents are touring Europe. Where his parents are remote, even diffident, and firmly grounded in reality, Robbie's grandmother is a free spirit with an intense connection to nature. Robbie is drawn to her way of thinking, and struggles to reconcile these two worlds.

On the sentence and paragraph level, the writing is fantastic. The descriptions of the wild animals have a numinous quality, and the short, simple sentences read like some kind of seemingly impossible hybrid of Ernest Hemingway and Julian of Norwich. The problem comes when one steps back and looks carefully at what these beautiful pieces add up to.

Taken as a whole, The Truth of Me appears at best to be unfinished. The conflict between Robbie and his mother weighs heavily on his heart, but his mother's turnaround seems questionably warranted and underexplored. His father is a cipher, and other characters that flit around the edges of the book, such as David Chance, the unorthodox second violinist in Robbie's parents' quartet, are introduced but never really developed. The interlude with Cranky Tom features lovely writing, but doesn't go anywhere, and the whole subplot is dropped by the end of the book. Frankly, at 114 brief pages (at least in my ARC), The Truth of Me doesn't have the space to fully engage with the issues that it raises.

I'm sure some people will like The Truth of Me, and given how truly lovely many of the individual lines are, I can even understand why. I don't think it's effective as a piece of literature, however, and I'd be surprised to see it on Newbery day next year.

Publication in August through Katherine Tegen Books / HarperCollins.

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