Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When the Bough Breaks Looks at Families In All Their Twisted, Imperfect Glory

(Image from Amazon)

For me, there are three things that kill an LDS YA novel: Molly Mormon/Peter Priesthood-type characters, unrealistic situations, and preachy passages. Kay Lynn Mangum's When the Bough Breaks passes on the first two, but falters a little on the third. Still, it's a thought-provoking book that should resonate with readers.

The story revolves around 17-year-old Rachel Fletcher, whose life falls apart when her father dies in a car accident. Because he was coming to fetch her from a friend's house, she feels responsible for his death. Although Rachel desperately needs reassurance from her family members, they are in no position to offer it. Her mother sleeps all day to escape her pain, while her brother Ryan numbs his feelings with alcohol. Despite her own feelngs, Rachel knows it's up to her to keep the family functioning, at least enough so that no one sees how much it's disintegrating.

Rachel's testimony keeps her afloat, but her constant prayers don't seem to be helping. Ryan's drinking spirals, causing increasingly violent situations. Her mother has risen from her bed, but she's still in the dark about Ryan. Plus, she's marrying the father of one of Rachel's classmates - and her dad's been gone for less than a year. Living with her new stepbrother is awkward enough, but it gets much worse when Rachel realizes she might actually have feelings for him. Rachel's only escape from her "twisted Brady Bunch" world comes when she writes poetry. The crazier her life gets, the more Rachel begs God for help. Will she ever get the answers she needs? And will they come in time to save her and her family?

I have my issues with this book (don't worry, we'll get to those in a minute), but I applaud the author for daring to portray a very flawed LDS family. She takes taboo subjects like teenage alcoholism and crippling grief and shows the heartbreaking toll they can take on an ordinary family. The scenes in which Rachel spends her morning dumping booze down the sink, then prodding her mom to eat, then tackling laundry and housework are especially poignant. As someone who has lived with a self-destructing sibling, I can say that Mangum's descriptions ring with authenticity. Like all LDS novels, this one also strives to be uplifting - the ending exudes hope (although things are wrapped up a little too neatly) as Rachel learns that God does answer prayers, just not always in the way we're expecting. I also have to mention the cover of When the Bough Breaks - it's both beautiful and provocative.

Probably my biggest problem with this novel lies in the flatness of the characters. While the reader comes to know Rachel fairly well, many members of her supporting cast remain merely facades. Each one could have used more depth to add realism and interest to the story. I also thought the plot suffered from lack of direction, which made tit seem overlong. After awhile, I got tired of reading about Ryan's latest incident - I wanted more than just a play-by-play. Again, I longed for more depth. The other thing that bothered me - and I think it will be even more annoying to teenagers - is the preachiness that seeped into the story. Long passages of lecture from Rachel's seminary teacher lacked subtlety and her religious conversations with Dallin seemed stilted and contrived. I'm guessing the hardest part about writing LDS fiction for young adults is inspiring while avoiding overt preaching. When the Bough Breaks tips a bit toward the latter, but it's not ooey-gooey enough to make your teeth hurt.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It drew me in, made me care about Rachel, and kept me reading to find out what happened to her. Of the three story "killers" I mentioned, When the Bough Breaks suffers only from a tendency toward preachiness. In my mind, 2 out of 3 ain't so bad. The story definitely has its flaws, but I think readers will appreciate the novel's honesty. Its message will ring true to anyone who was absent the day God handed out perfect families - oh wait, that's all of us.

Grade: B-

5 comments:

  1. I totally disagree with your review. I thought the author portrayed her story in a very realistic fashion. I'm not sure where you are getting the "preachy" attitude from. Not even. I don't usually read LDS fiction because it is usually contrived and characters are flat (not the mention the cheese factor), but this YA novel was written for the YA in mind, and thus had the perfect depth of each of her characters individually. You think things were wrapped up neatly? I didn't see that at all. Perhaps you should read a YA novel through the eyes of a YA.

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  2. Sarah - The thing I love most about book blogging is seeing (reading) people's different reactions to books. We all have such different opinions.

    I guess when I wrote that things wrapped up too neatly, I was thinking about my own situation with an alcoholic sibling. His battle went on for years, and he still hasn't realized what an enormous toll his actions took on our family. I have been in the main character's shoes, and yes, I felt that part of the book wrapped up too easily.

    I do think Kay Lynn was brave to take on a subject like alcoholism. In today's world, plenty of LDS families are dealing with issues like this, and I think teens are grateful to see reality finally being addressed in LDS novels.

    You're right - I'm not a teen, so I probably have difficulty reading a "YA novel through the eyes of a YA." But, when I was a teen, I hated reading LDS fiction because it was preachy and so obviously trying to teach me a spiritual lesson. It's okay to "preach," but the key is subtlety. My opinion, anyway.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I've been communicating with Kay Lynn, and I know she'll appreciate your comments :)

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  3. Well, I've enjoyed reading the review of my novel, as well as the comments! RE: my novel wrapping up too neatly, from the research I did for this novel, which included interviewing a young woman who had just finished alcohol rehab, I've learned yet again that truth is stranger than fiction. I based much of the ending of the novel on her experience. In her case, once her family figured out what was going on with her, they researched to place her in one of the top three rehab centers for youth in the country. She has been fortunate -- one three month trip to rehab has helped her immensely. She has been clean and sober for almost two years now, and goes around to high schools telling of her experience. I hope she stays sober, but as she's told me, every day is a challenge, and she knows she could relapse, which is what often does happen to those who suffer from addictions. I wanted to end my novel with hope, which was why I chose to have Ryan's situation be similar to hers. I know from my research that this is not the case with many who suffer with addictions. The young woman I interviewed has said the same. She has definitely been fortunate! Even though my novel may have some flaws, it has been humbling to have many teenagers contact me through my website (several have been from homes with a family member who struggle with addictions) to tell me how much they enjoyed the novel. Knowing the audience you hope to reach is enjoying your work is something I think every author loves! :)

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  4. KLM - I had no idea Ryan was based on a real person. Interesting. I'm glad her rehab went so well - such a quick recovery is definitely not the norm.

    I know you talked about being frustrated with LDS publishers for not allowing you to write about everything you want to - hopefully, this book and teens' positive reactions to it will prove how necessary realistic LDS fiction really is.

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  5. I realized I forgot to mention Kay Lynn's website - check her out at www.kaylynnmangumnovels.com .

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