The Tragedy Paper was a book that I really wanted to love. It had all the elements of the types of books that tend to draw me in: the closed, high-stakes environment of an elite prep boarding school, a secret that shatters the lives of the characters, and an outcast looking to find his niche. Unfortunately, the story didn't do justice to any of these attributes. Some spoilers to follow.
First, I'll start with the outcast angle--it's not much of an angle at all. Yes, Tim feels like a misfit because he's an albino. The portrayal of his struggles with this were often very interesting, and I could sympathize with his agony over that fact that, no matter how much he wants to just blend in, he never will. There was some good depth to this aspect of the story. However, Tim also doesn't try very hard to become a part of his environment. Instead, he spends the bulk of the book mooning over Vanessa. If he'd been shunned, this might have worked, but the only person who seems actively hostile toward him is Patrick. Other students reach out to Tim, but all he's interested in is obsessing over Vanessa.
As for Patrick...I can feel myself making a face as I write about him. He felt so one dimensional to me, and I could not figure out a single reason why Vanessa might have been attracted to him. For that matter, I couldn't figure out what Vanessa couldn't be honest about how she felt about Tim. The book tries to imply that there's some sort of taboo about the two of them being together, but Tim seems more concerned with his albinism than most of the other characters do. He's the one who tells himself Vanessa can't possibly like him because he's an albino, and I think he does both himself and Vanessa a disservice. The intent may have been to show the push-pull Vanessa felt toward Tim, but I never got that. I couldn't shake the feeling that the real obstacle to their relationship was Tim's own sense of self-consciousness.
I didn't find the setting particularly well done either. The school barely exists for all the role it plays in the lives of the characters. In fact, it mainly seems to exist as a plot device. The Tragedy Paper is supposed to be this big, overwhelming assignment--it's even the title of the book!--but it gets very little page time. Tim skips classes and homework with abandon and none of the teachers ever sit down with him and ask him what's going on? I don't buy it. I think this book falls into the YA trap: the adults are all incompetent and clueless. It'd be one thing if someone made a deliberate attempt and Tim evaded them, but every adult in the book seems to just shrug and walk away, accepting Tim's answers. I would think that a teacher in a school like that would be far more canny after having lived with teenagers in such a closed environment year after year.
When the secret was revealed, it felt anticlimactic to me--most likely because I saw it coming from ten miles away. Tim's mea culpa didn't do much for me. What happens is entirely his fault, and I didn't sympathize much with him. It would have been better had the tragedy come about despite his good intentions or for a million other reasons but, in the end, it was a matter of his just being a dumb teenager. This would have been okay if the story had been about his lack of judgement and the aftermath, but after all the buildup, the tragedy just fell flat.
My biggest annoyance with the book, though, was the framed narrative. It didn't work, period. There was no reason to have Duncan in the book other than to provide Tim with a vehicle for telling his story and making his confession--which could have been done without Duncan even being there. The story initially makes it seem like Duncan has some sort of integral role in the events, but he doesn't. I know the idea was to show how one seemingly small choice could have untold consequences, but it would have worked better had Duncan figured more prominently earlier in the novel, when Tim is laying out the groundwork for what led up to the tragedy. I was annoyed by the interruptions whenever there was a small, unnecessary section about some inconsequential thing Duncan was doing.
This isn't a completely bad book, though. The writing is really nice at times, and the concept was a good one. With some more work, I think this novel could have been really good.
on December 27, 2012
THE TRAGEDY PAPER's focus is a love triangle between 17-year-olds at a boarding school. What makes it a rarity in the YA field is how "clean" it is. Anyone reading YA these days knows that, as a genre, young adult literature has grown up and skewed strongly toward more adult themes, language, and issues. Not so with Elizabeth Laban's debut novel. The book is wall to wall free of profanity or R-rated acts of any sort. It's just a straight-out, old-fashioned love story -- with a few quirks.
Quirk #1: It starts and circles back like S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS for no other reason than (according to the afterword) Hinton's book -- another "clean" read, thanks to the era it was written -- is one of Laban's favorites.
Quirk #2: The protagonist is an albino. This reminded me of Palascio's WONDER, in a way. Obviously the characters here are much older, but still, Tim Macbeth (I kid you not) stands out like a white light that draws stares from all around. He is another case of a "marked man" in the lead, against all odds.
Quirk #3: THE TRAGEDY PAPER is a book within a book. It's mostly about Tim's love for a girl named Vanessa, who happens to be attached to that predictable YA staple, the most handsome and athletic popular jock in the school (here named Patrick). But Tim's entire narrative is told, THIRTEEN REASONS WHY-like, via tape (CDs in this case). The listener? A new senior named Duncan (again, I kid you not), a year on the heels of the triangular leads, who listens to the recordings because he happens to get Tim's room from the fateful year before. Neatly enough, he, like Tim, has a romantic interest he is pursuing.
Quirk #4: The book seems to be contemporary, yet reflects little of its time in history and how modern teens' lifestyles are today. At one point, up early in the morning, one character uses the line "Time to make the doughnuts" as a joke. What 17-year-old would understand THAT allusion, I wondered. The Dunkin Donuts commercial came out in the 80s. More strangely still, I think cell phones are mentioned once, and one big event in the novel -- a secret "outing" planned by Patrick -- is advertised via handwritten posters over a series of days. This jars in an almost anachronistic way. What kids that age would bother with such an old-school, labor-intensive, and clearly dangerous (if you don't want to be discovered) method of announcing a party? Does the word "texting" mean nothing to this book?
Quirk #5: The Tragedy Paper itself, an assignment from Irving School's English teacher Mr. Simon, plays a minor role throughout. You keep expecting it to somehow play a larger role, but no. The only connection is that, by definition, both book and assignment are tragedies. As for DEAD POETS SOCIETY-like scenes in the classroom, few and far between.
Overall, the book scored high marks for its storyline and flowing style. Is it in the upper tier of boarding school books? Hardly. And it loses steam toward the end, where it meets an almost anti-climactic end. Still, the narrative pulls you along with its steady current, and you wonder as much as Duncan does how all of Tim and Vanessa's troubles will pull together. In the end, and ironically enough, I felt as if the book needed a more tragic end than it got. Weird, huh? Nevertheless, I admired Laban for what she accomplished here and think many students, from middle school on up, will agree.
At its core, Elizabeth LaBan's THE TRAGEDY PAPER is a coming-of-age tale very much like A SEPARATE PEACE - two teenage boys wrestle with such things as love, loyalty, fear, and insecurity at a prestigious prep school. What sets THE TRAGEDY PAPER apart is how its story is told. Seventeen-year-old Duncan Meade begins his senior year at the Irving School with a mixture of anxiety and excitement - he gets to live in the cool "senior dorm," with the best view on campus, he gets to find out what his "treasure" will be (all Irving graduates leave something special for the rising seniors who will be moving into their rooms in the fall), and he gets to plan the Game (sort of a glorified "senior prank," one of the school's traditions). But something happened the year before, near the end of Duncan's junior year, which makes him uncertain about how his senior year will go. And then there's the Tragedy Paper, a year-long project assigned by the Senior English teacher, which is never far from Duncan's mind. So we get Duncan's story (he loves pretty Daisy, but can't quite bring himself to let her know, and he can't get whatever happened last year out of his mind) and we get Tim Macbeth's story. Tim, a reclusive albino who spent only one semester at Irving, lived in Duncan's room the year before. And he leaves Duncan a very unusual "treasure" - a set of CDs on which he has recorded everything that happened leading up to the mysterious event that colored Duncan's junior year. Duncan begins listening to Tim's story, and he becomes quickly engrossed. And so do the readers. In fact, Tim's story is so much more interesting than Duncan's that I found myself skimming over the Duncan parts to get to the Tim parts (Tim's simmering affection for Vanessa forms a nice counterpoint to Duncan's own fixation on Daisy).
In part, THE TRAGEDY PAPER is a mystery - what happened last year, how was Duncan involved, how was Tim involved, and what is the connection between Duncan and Tim? LaBan laces her novel with hints about what happened, and suggestions that tragedy is often much closer to home than we might think (Shakespeare is considered a master for a reason!). And all of this works to create a seductive narrative that's very hard to put down. Both Duncan and Tim are interesting characters, and Vanessa is intriguing. I was always filled with questions about her motives, her feelings, and her relationship with both Tim and her popular boyfriend, Patrick.
That said, there is something about THE TRAGEDY PAPER that doesn't quite work. Maybe it's because the mysterious thing that happened isn't as monumental as we are led to believe. I was expecting something much more traumatic than what is ultimately revealed (there are just so many veiled hints of things that reminded me of DEAD POETS SOCIETY and A SEPARATE PEACE). Additionally, I felt a bit let down once Tim's story concluded - my connection throughout was to him and I felt a huge desire to hear from him directly, beyond his disembodied voice on those CDs.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading THE TRAGEDY PAPER. Irving School seems like a very cool place (with some really cool teachers and a bunch of unique and fun traditions that would make being a student there very interesting). Tim's story, especially, is beautifully told. I would recommend this to anyone interested in coming-of-age stories, and to anyone who is currently (or ever was!) a high school student. It's a good novel. I will not soon forget it.
What constitutes a real tragedy? For a young adult, the answer to that question could be any number of things. For the students of this East Coast boarding school, the tragedy paper is their final goodbye and their biggest revelation. In Elizabeth Laban's The Tragedy Paper, traditions, a social hierarchy, and a literature assignment can change someone's life forever.
Duncan moves into his new dorm room for his senior year, and he finds his "treasure" left from the senior before him to be a bundle of CDs. Despite the crapshoot of a tradition, he had hoped for a better treasure and certainly a better room. But once he starts listening to the legacy Tim, last year's senior who happened to be albino, he has a hard time looking at everything the same way. After what happened last year during the tradition of the Senior Games, he has been different this year anyway. Now, hearing Tim's story about how it all happened, Duncan has a choice: either the tragedy changes who he is or he changes how the tragedy controls their lives.
Tim has always been an outcast. It is hard to hide your differences when you are albino- everyone notices. But starting a new school his senior year, across the country, and in a private school, is more than Tim really thought about when he agreed to give it a try. But on his journey out there, he was stranded in an airport hotel with a beautiful girl named Vanessa. And as luck would have it, Vanessa is headed to the very same school Tim is now a part of, traditions and all. After their whirlwind night building igloos and ordering room service, Tim feels a connection to Vanessa like he has never felt before. However, her boyfriend might not feel the same way about their connection. And now, in a school full of traditions he is completely oblivious to, Tim must find a way to finally find out who he is and how far he is willing to go.
As I started to read this, I immediately thought of Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why. With the CD's and the story left as a legacy, it all sounded very familiar, but it was still really well written and the story was interesting, so I was excited to find out what happened. Add to that this layer of intrigue surrounding the traditions at the private school. This is one of those true East Coast boarding schools layered with generations of students, traditions, and mystery. But the traditions are actually kind of sweet. The idea of the senior before you leaving a treasure for your moving-in day or the seniors hosting an event each year to tap in the new junior committee. All of it is kind of quaint, actually. It wasn't the Skull and Bones stuff you might be thinking of.
And the Tragedy Paper, a kind of thesis culminating in a Literature class's study of true tragedy, is brilliant! In fact, it gave me a lot of insight into my own senior class, and Laban's ideas surrounding this class and this teacher are brilliant. Then comes the adults in the book. Supportive, loving parents, and even a wonderful step-father Tim adores! The teachers? Let's put it this way, the headmaster picks Tim up at the airport after his flight is delayed! This really was a jackpot of stellar adult role models. And I really liked this! So many YA books have absentee parents and cruel, useless teachers. The adults in this book were truly great, and I appreciated that.
*SPOILER* My biggest struggle with this book was the "tragedy" at the end. I hate to even say this, but I wanted a bigger tragedy. Yes, I am sure the tragedy would have been life-altering for those involved, but as they all survived relatively unscathed, I am unsure how believable Duncan's traumatization would have been- it felt forced. Like Laban didn't want to kill anyone she liked, so she just banged them around a little bit. I think the build-up of Duncan's reactions and the tragedy paper needed a tragedy so devastating it would have shaken my world up. But I didn't get that. And sadly, it ruined the ending of a really good book for me. *END SPOILER*
So, I would definitely pass this onto my students, especially being part of a boarding school. It was a great, clean book and perfect for a younger student even though it is about seniors. I wish the ending was a little bit more powerful, but that doesn't detract from the really beautiful writing.
Like some of the other reviewers, I think this is a good but not great entry into the coming-of-age-at-an-elite-boarding-school genre. It does have elements of both A Separate Peace and Dead Poets Society (in particular the male perspectives, the study of friendship, the tragic turn, the amazing/inspiring English teacher), but I wouldn't quite put it in the same category as those. It feels more like an homage to greatness than an attempt at it, if that makes sense.
The book is very well written and very easy to read, and the story-within-a-story format works well here. I love that one of the narrators is albino - I don't think I've encountered that before and it's definitely what sets this book apart. My only real complaint is that the build-up to the tragedy is so intense that the actual tragedy is a bit of a letdown (which seems terrible, because what happens is more than tragic enough, but there's just something about the way it's foreshadowed that made me think something way, way more sinister was going to happen).
I guess I'm in the minority, because I think this was just okay.
This is Laban's first published work. The story follows Duncan, now a senior at a prestigious prep school. Duncan's room used to belong to Tim, who has left him his story on CDs. Duncan knew of Tim, though they weren't friends. Tim, who was only at the school during his final semester of high school, was an outcast at the school, due to being an albino. Tim met and fell in love with Vanessa during his trip to start that last semester, only to find out that she's with the most popular jock in school.
This book has been out for awhile, so I don't know that these are really spoilers, but just in case - SPOILER ALERT.
I just couldn't see why being an albino made Tim an outcast. Kids are cruel and yes, they pick on those who are different. But this just felt so forced. It was more that Tim was so unhappy being an albino that he immediately assumed people would dislike him. Thus, he pushed them away before they had a chance to reject him. I give props to Laban for not just making him fat or gay, which are the usual suspects when kids (and adults) bully, but I just can't buy the albino thing being a reason to mistreat someone.
I also found NO redeeming qualities in Patrick at all, which made me dislike Vanessa for being with him. As for Duncan, he really wasn't necessary at all.
Because I couldn't connect with the characters, I didn't care about what happened to them. Tim may have suffered the most but by the end I wanted to smack him and say, you were so intent on appearing "normal" you ruined your own sight - remind me why I'm supposed to feel sorry for you?
It's okay. It's still better than Twilight. And just about anything James Patterson has written lately.
on February 6, 2013
So much of the so-called young adult fiction world these days is occupied by multiple versions of dystopia, characters with some sort of special power, zombies, vampires, werewolves, angels, and warriors, it's easy to overlook some of the sensational work being done in more "traditional" fiction. I was utterly captivated by Elizabeth LaBan's The Tragedy Paper, and think it's demonstrative of the depth of this genre today.
Tim Macbeth has always been an outsider. Being albino, he's always stood out in crowds for the wrong reasons, when all he really wants to do is hide in a corner and make himself invisible. When his mother and stepfather sell their Chicago house, Tim agrees to attend the prestigious Irving School in upstate New York for his last semester of high school. En route to school, he meets Vanessa Scheller, a vivacious, beautiful, sensitive girl his age--who happens to be a student at Irving as well. Vanessa is, of course, popular, and dating the most popular boy in school, but she seems interested in Tim, especially when there's no one else around.
As Tim tries to fight his growing attraction to Vanessa and deal with confusing behavior from her boyfriend, Patrick, he, like all of his fellow seniors, is obsessed with The Tragedy Paper, Irving's version of a senior thesis, which is an assignment of great magnitude given by a quirky and demanding English teacher. Tim also deals with increasingly alarming physical problems, which he tries to ignore as he attempts to make sense of his relationship with Vanessa, finish his Tragedy Paper, and plan for his future. Everything comes to a head during a fabled and mysterious school activity known as "The Game."
At the heart of this novel is Duncan, a senior who learns firsthand all that transpired in Tim and Vanessa's relationship, as he tries making sense of what occurred, while he tries to take control of his own life (and his own Tragedy Paper). The book switches viewpoints between Tim and Duncan.
I thought this was a really well-written, compelling book. I had suspicions about the direction in which the plot would flow; sometimes I was right and sometimes I was wrong, but I wanted to keep reading. Even though I couldn't quite identify with the characters as it's been quite some time since high school (sigh) LaBan drew me fully into their stories. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them, and more than that, I wanted to know what happened to the characters after the book was over, which for me is truly the mark of a book I love.
This isn't a book in which high school students lament their lives or their star-crossed loves; this is a book that provokes emotions and may very well remind you of feelings you once had. But even if it doesn't provoke memories, it's still a book you should read.
on February 7, 2014
In our fast paced society, we often see books, movies and television shows forgo telling a story to writing snapshots of one drama moving onto the next. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its thoughtful treatment of the story. The mystery of the main characters unfolds over the whole book and comes to a satisfying conclusion. I respected the authors ability to weave a story without delving into lazy writing (ie. language, gratuitous sex and violence).
I would recommend this book to young adults and adults.
As part of its traditions, graduating seniors at the Irving boarding school gift incoming seniors a present. Given that some are lucky enough to receive Yankees' tickets, stock options or aged bourbon, Duncan is disappointed to learn that his present is a stack of CDs. After all, who listens to CDs any more? Plus he's just gotten the worst room in the dorm - the one that weird albino kid lived in last year.
But it turns out that they tell the story of a tragedy that happened last year to two students, narrated by Tim Macbeth, the aforementioned albino. Once he starts, Duncan can't stop listening. What will Vanessa, the girl Tim meets when stranded at an airport, say once she finds out that they are bound for the same destination: Irving? Is Patrick, Vanessa's boyfriend, a psychopath with a split personality or does he just have a weird sense of humor? Is Vanessa leading Tim on with her cryptic flirting after he arrives at school, or does she really have feelings for him? And when it comes to the senior Game, in which Patrick enlists Tim to organize a risky sledding trip, how far are the rules being bent when it comes to choosing participants? Finally, will all this material give Duncan enough for him to ace his own "Tragedy Paper," which all seniors are required to hand in as a graduation requirement?
The book started out intriguingly and I was charmed by the dynamics between Vanessa and Tim pre-Irving arrival. I appreciated that the author framed the book as a mystery and didn't give everything away in a prologue the way some do. The school itself, despite mentions of drugs, seemed like a great place to spend your adolescence, kind of like Hogwarts with its superb food and cool traditions. If there was one issue, it was that things slowed down once the characters reached Irving and the pace dragged. However, I would recommend it for young adults who enjoy novels set at boarding school, especially if there's a mystery to solve.
on February 5, 2014
The Tragedy Paper is a book that you read with a feeling of dread because you know something bad is going to happen and you just like the main characters too much to want to allow it to happen.
Duncan begins his senior year at The Irving School, a private boarding high school, with the tradition of finding your room and the "gift" that the previous roomer has left for you. He knows from the start that the room he is going to get belonged to Tim, an albino boy who was a part of something bad that had happened the year before. Duncan was also involved in what happened the year before. We just don't know what that was, yet.
When Duncan finds his "gift", a set of cds that Tim has left for him, explaining from the start just what happened, Duncan is profoundly changed.
Tim meets Vanessa at the airport on his way to starting school. There is a connection between the two and a friendship starts. Vanessa seems to want to keep their relationship a secret especially from her boyfriend Patrick. But Patrick senses something and brings Tim in closer to his circle and involves him in planning the senior game, something they do every year at the school. What happens next is something I didn't see coming.
There is also the tragedy paper the seniors have to write. Their English teacher Mr. Simon makes it the major part of their school year.
Tragedy looms over everything in this book. You just expect it, even though you don't want to. It seems to be around every corner like it's going to jump out at you. But it is very subtle and hits you when you least expect it. It's written so well that I felt as if I was actually listening to Tim tell the story and I wanted to yell at him to stop because something bad was coming. I have my own idea in my head that things end up happily ever after for them because out of tragedy, something good does come about.