Wednesday, October 23, 2013

2014 Second Takes: The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata

"Some kids I knew would read only books that were about something they could relate to. But I was interested in other stuff."

When I got to that passage, I actually had to take a break from reading The Thing About Combines Luck to ponder the critical question: did I just get trolled by Cynthia Kadohata?

The book that prompts that statement from Summer, The Thing About Luck's protagonist, is A Separate Peace. A few paragraphs down, Summer muses further about that novel: "Why would a book in which hardly anything happened for most of the time eat at me so much? It was the weirdest thing."

I almost wonder if that isn't less character dialogue, and more Kadohata's artistic statement of intent. The Thing About Luck is a book in which hardly anything happens for most of the time, about a lifestyle that for most people is very remote, interrupted repeatedly with pages of technical and logistical details that don't advance what little plot there is. It's a book that aspires to make something powerful happen quietly, but unlike some other novels with similar aspirations (The Hidden Summer is probably the best example from this year), it doesn't pull together the elements well enough to make the power visible.

Many readers seem to be big fans of the characters, but I feel like Luck suffers from what the Onion AV Club calls "the hole in the middle." Summer's grandparents are wonderful and deep, and Mick, one of the Irish workers, reveals hidden sides to his personality as the novel progresses, but Summer herself is both frustratingly bland, and armed with a backstory (malaria!) that never really has a payoff. Jaz, Summer's brother, also feels like a blurry photocopy of characters we've encountered before. Again, I couldn't help but compare Luck unfavorably to The Hidden Summer, which gave shading and nuance to all of its characters, major and minor.

The vast emptiness of the mid-American setting is well-realized, even distinguished, to use the Newbery word. But Luck's plot is vapor-thin, and its prose is fine but unspectacular, and I think its style, with its constant interruptions of its own narrative, doesn't, in the end, succeed. It's not that I can't relate to it, I don't think, or that hardly anything happens (which also describes Breathing Room, and The Hidden Summer, and most of my favorite adult fiction) -- it's that the parts just don't add up to the whole that they aim to produce.


  1. At least you figured out what the heck A Separate Peace was doing in the book. Thanks! I kept trying to figure out how boarding school, or guilt, or friendship, or whatever were related to the novel. BTW, I think Kadohata might have worked out a fudge for this, but A Separate Peace is way too advanced reading for a 12-year-old, in my opinion. It was too advanced for my overprivileged class of prep school freshmen - none of us got it.

  2. My exact thoughts, right up to the idea that THE HIDDEN SUMMER out-gunned this in pretty much every applicable area.

  3. I read this and found something was lacking, though I couldn't place my finger on it. You pretty much summed it all up. Thanks! ��