Canadian debut missing a certain something

Where We Have to Go ★★★

by Lauren Kirshner

I thought I would be gaga over the moon for this book. It has all the ingredients I’m usually such a sucker for – coming-of-age; first-person narrator; dysfunctional family; humor; the mother and daughter relationship; it’s even set in where we have to goCanada during a time period that should make me feel nostalgic. I really liked it, parts of it work amazingly well, but overall I’m left feeling empty and a little cheated. It’s like I was promised a real, live, bloody beating heart and then after being led down the garden path a few times I was handed a cut-out of a black and white diagram from a 1960s biology textbook. Or remember this ad from a few years ago? The expression on that kid’s face perfectly sums up how I’m feeling right now (a little cheated, a little mistreated).

The structure of this novel is impressive; Kirshner’s control of language is enviable and she is obviously a talented writer (hence the 3 stars). But here’s the thing: even though all the technical aspects of the novel are firmly in place – plotting, pacing, characterization, metaphors, analogies, foreshadowing, the works – most readers are searching for more than technical proficiency when they sit down and open a book. I don’t like to feel manipulated by literary devices and tricks of the trade. I want to be swept away goddamn it, and be pulled out of my own life for awhile. I want to live and breathe a story and totally believe in the characters I’m reading about. I want to feel their pain and cheer for their success. There is just something a little too contrived and … I don’t know … kitschy about the struggles in this one.

The first 1/3 of the book sort of reminded me of Running with Scissors – the dysfunction is such that it reaches almost the level of parody. Surely the narrator is taking liberties with memory and exaggeration. In the case of Where We Have to Go, I found myself struggling with the way Lucy’s parents related to her and spoke with her. Things are said that left me scratching my head thinking: “would parents really talk to their 11 year old kid like that? Even an only child?” As for Lucy, her precociousness is so over-the-top, her insights so keen, I could never really buy her as “just a kid”. Her “beyond her years” wisdom is jarring and unconvincing when we also consider she’s prancing around in ALF merchandise (not even realizing it’s long off the air and she’s watching it in syndication).

Other things that left me unsatisfied: Lucy’s mom and her friend trying to set Lucy up with a boy when she’s TWELVE YEARS OLD. Huh??? Really? I know young girls are growing up faster than ever these days, but do you really need your mother pimping you out? I also felt the “anorexia” bit kind of a throwaway part of the novel; it lagged and didn’t ring true for me. It felt like forced drama attempting to add “depth” to Lucy’s coming-of-age trials. I also did not appreciate what happens to Lucy’s mother; I felt emotionally manipulated. It felt like a cheap ploy and made me angry.

Overall, while the novel is technically proficient and reads very strong in places, I find myself not able to recommend it.

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