Professor Julie Schumacher's fifth novel for younger readers imagines a clumsily destructive creature trying to figure out who she is.
Director of the Creative Writing Program, Julie Schumacher this summer published her fifth book for younger readers and teens, a rather astonishing achievement given that she started her first in 2003 as a one-off experiment in developing plot. It turns out she's very good at it: Her 2008 young adult novel Black Box won a Minnesota Book Award. The new book, The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls, began as an idea from her editor at Delacorte and grew, she says, from what seemed a "fun and simple project" to a structural nightmare of interlocking strands: four high school girls forced into a mother-daughter book club; the fiction they read; one girl's assigned summer writing project; and the defining of literary tools such as "setting."
The book club members read five novels: The Yellow Wallpaper, Frankenstein, The Left Hand of Darkness, The House on Mango Street, and The Awakening. "Originally I planned to have the mother-daughter book club read eight books," Professor Schumacher describes, "but this plan became too unwieldy, because the plots of the novels had to intersect with the lives of my characters. I was writing about an all-female book club, so I decided to narrow down the selection to books written by women; then I started looking at high school reading lists, to find out what 11th grade teachers might want their students to read. I did of course choose books I'm particularly fond of myself--because I had to spend a fair amount of time with them."
That affection comes through in 15-year-old Adrienne's responses, which she records for her English writing project. "I missed Genly Ai," notes Adrienne, at one point, and it's easy to see why she identifies with the confused and ambivalent envoy of Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness: She is an explorer as well, but her alien world is young adulthood. Like Frankenstein's monster, she is a bumbling, destructive creature full of pain; Adrienne wants to hate her creator (mother in this case) at the same time she is realizing that responsibility for developing a self now rests with her.
The apex of Adrienne's flailing research into identity is an indelible first-person account of binge drinking, which illustrates the perils of over-indulgence through stop-time moments of the sort of rich absurdity practiced by Irvine Welsh. "I certainly wouldn't want to endorse or encourage underage drinking," stresses Schumacher, "but I know from experience that younger readers (like any other readers) don't want to be handed a moral lecture when they read."
Of course, what Adrienne understands as the unforeseeable consequences of an essential investigation looks to her mother like a complete breakdown of her daughter's sense of responsibility. In a book driven by dialogue, Schumacher masterfully portrays how tricky conversation can be, especially between emotionally stressed people (such as a parent and teenager). If she was this wise while raising her own teenagers, now adults, she deserves a trophy. Schumacher laughs. "'Wise while raising teenagers.' That's a good one. I think misunderstandings of any sort are effective tools in a work of fiction," she goes on. "But there's a particular brand of misunderstanding between parent and child, based on withholding of information--and I do try to make use of that withholding, and that tug-of-war regarding power, when I write about younger characters."
If there is less impetus to write those younger characters, with her daughters now out of the house, Schumacher says she would like to keep a hand in both YA and adult fiction, which she doesn't see as vastly different worlds. Currently she is finishing up a collection of short stories (a tantalizing sample was published by the Atlantic Monthly).
Given the structural challenges of The Unbearable Book Club, we might assume that creating short stories would be less traumatic. The author disagrees. "No matter what I'm writing," Schumacher reveals, "it seems that writing something else would be easier.
"Stories seem particularly difficult to me now that I'm trying to finish a few of them, and I'm looking longingly at what would surely be a quick and easy novel that I hope to work on when the stories are finished."