A 15-year-old’s parents try to get her to read by hiring an author to write a book for her
How to Buy a Love of Reading: A Novel. By Tanya Egan Gibson. Dutton, 353 pp., $25.95.
By Janice Harayda
Tanya Egan Gibson begins her first novel with a delicious sendup of a Sweet Sixteen party dominated by an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, whose penis is “dripping syphilitically.” Right away Gibson shows that she has two traits vital to a satirist: a willingness to twist the knife and the ability to find a worthy target — in this case, the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous in Gatsby country, the North Shore of Long Island.
But Gibson quickly loses control of her tone in this story of a teenager whose parents try to overcome her dislike of reading by hiring a live-in author to write a book for her as a 16th-birthday gift. A novel that begins as satire devolves into a teen weepie as its characters go to parties, get drunk, pop Vicodins, sleep around, cram for their SATs and try to deal with their clueless and hypocritical parents.
The problem lies partly in an excess of ambition: Gibson tries to marry satire and tragedy, two forms so difficult to bring together that even so great a satirist as Jane Austen didn’t attempt it. You can’t easily persuade readers to pity characters whose lives you’ve been ridiculing for hundreds of pages. And Gibson has made her task harder by lampooning more than the patricians and parvenus known by Carley Wells, a sweet and overweight 15-year-old, who loves a popular male friend, Hunter Cay. She takes aim at targets such as reality TV, Arthurian romances, English teachers, college counselors and postmodern literary techniques, some incorporated into the plot.
Gibson might have pulled if off if she’d invested her novel with a faster pace and more drama. But How to Buy a Love of Reading is overwritten and lacks a powerful central conflict, both of which slow the story. Carley doesn’t have a strong antagonist but a variety of weaker ones, including her adored Hunter and her parents and the second-rate novelist they hired to write a book for her.
As characters swim through the book, Gibson keeps backtracking to fill in labored details like these about her heroine’s bulimic friend, Amber, whose behavior changed while Hunter was convalescing from an illness:
“Until then, she and Carley had just gone wherever Hunter went, hanging out with his friends — people like his older cousin Ian, last year’s student council president. But in Hunter’s absence Amber had gone back to spending time with people she and Carley had hung out with in middle school before he’d moved to town, people who mostly weren’t invited to the parties but who liked her.”
Gibson has a good eye for the follies of characters like a partygoer who advises another on how to cope with with a dull guest: “Tune her out by counting her pores.” But her inability to tame her material makes you feel a bit like that socialite: After a while, you’re counting the pores of this novel.
Best line: A private college counselor tells a couple that “their daughter needed rebranding if she wanted any shot at the real Ivies or the ‘hidden Ivies’ or even — given Bunny’s inability to break the ninety-fifth percentile on her PSATs — the ‘public Ivies.'”
Worst line: “Her breasts were like a disaster in the news: a roof falling in under the weight of heavy rain, a double-decker freeway collapsing in an earthquake, a bridge undulating in high winds until its cables snapped.”
To be published: May 14, 2009
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of How to Buy a Love of Reading. Some material in the finished book may differ.
About the author: Gibson lives in Marin County, California.
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.