Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead [2010]

My Rating: 7.5/10

Quick Summary: Twelve-year-old Miranda is already dealing with all the upheaval that comes with adolescence (including a best friend who no longer wants to hang out, and having to help her mother prepare for a game show appearance) when she begins receiving a series of mysterious, timey-wimey notes.

This is one of the Newbery books that I'd read before, and I enjoyed just as much the second time as I did the first.  Among other things, it is a wonderful homage to A Wrinkle in Time, which has always been a favorite of mine.  This is a book that is perfectly aimed at its age group, and yet is still a joy for an adult.  Considering my fondness for it now, I can only imagine that I would have adored it when I was ten.

The tone of the book is very well set from the beginning, with an perfectly apropos epigram by Einstein: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious".  When You Reach Me is an interesting confluence of genres: science fiction, mystery, historical, and of course, just straight up fiction.

There are really only two critiques I think I would offer up.  First of all, the timeline of the story is a bit confusing.  It begins with Miranda's mom receiving the post card inviting her to the game show, and from there, continues to jump backwards and forwards.  Additionally, despite my status as lifelong Trekkie, I do tend to get a little twisted up by the paradoxes of time travel (there's a reason why I studied Lit and History, and not physics).

Second of all, the ending is just a little bit pat.  It feels like that, at the ripe old age of twelve, Miranda has gotten her life totally together.  However, I'll admit that I do prefer a utopian ending, in which the message is that if the adolescent protagonist thinks about others and does her part, life vastly improves.  Save the discovery of the crapsack world for when readers get old enough to discover Cormac McCarthy.

But to return to the Einstein epigram to the book, When You Reach Me understands the beauty of the mysterious, especially for the young.  It's easy to talk about the outer time travel mystery, but beyond that, there's a great balance of inner mysteries.  The impossible mystery of friendship, both with Miranda's old best friend, and her new acquaintances.  The way Miranda comes face to face with race and class issues, and has to discover where she stands.  And of course, Miranda's relationship with her mother, and how that changes as she grows older.  The best books always seem to find a way to balance and entwine the inner and outer mysteries, and this is definitely one that qualifies.

Last thoughts- when I first read this book, and through up a quick review on Goodreads, I noticed several one star reviews for the book.  Almost universally, they came from people who had gone in expecting too much of this book.  I think the Newbery Medal can be something of a burden, as it sets the bar quite high.  When You Reach Me is a quiet, well-constructed, subtle book, not a splashy or arresting one.  Keep that in mind, and you're golden.

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