Monday, August 25, 2008

Review of The Spell Book of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty

When I first picked up The Spell Book of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty, it seemed to be quite obviously YA, published as it is by the Arthur A. Levine imprint of Scholastic and featuring a 12-year-old girl who finds a book of spells. Easy-peasy!

Well, no. To my initial uneasiness but then vast delight, this book quickly began soaring away from any possibility of pinning it down into a category or genre. Sure, there’s a Junior High School girl named Listen, whose spells may or may not be having some intriguing and unexpected effects on the people around her. But most of the characters are young women in their 20s and 30s, who are dealing with jobs, relationships, children, and other grown-up preoccupations.

The plot starts out scattered and complicated, but the disparate threads all lead the reader to the tightly knitted heart of the center. To reveal too much would detract from the pleasure of this tale, so I will only say that the Zing family (Mr. and Mrs. Zing, their two 30-something daughters Marbie and Fancy, Fancy’s husband Radcliffe, and Marbie’s boyfriend Nathaniel) has an unusual and all-consuming Secret.

Meanwhile, Nathaniel’s daughter Listen has found a handmade book that cheerfully exhorts her to follow easy but very concise instructions that will lead to such results as someone finding something unexpected in a washing machine. She follows these instructions with bemusement and then a kind of desperation – after all, the book promises to “mend your broken heart.” Listen’s heart has been broken by her group of friends, who have turned on her now that they’re all at a new school.

And finally there is Cath Murphy, a young and peculiarly lucky 2nd-grade teacher, whose love affair with a fellow teacher at first seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the story, except that she is Fancy’s daughter Cassie’s teacher.

These young women – Cath, Fancy, Marbie, and Listen – are the heart and soul of the story, with Mrs. Zing (Maudie) playing a more distant but crucial role as well. While Cath is down-to-earth and practical, Fancy and Marbie are more nebulous and fey, drifting through their lives and wondering (or grumbling) at where the winds of chance blow them. All that really inspires them to real action is The Secret – which explains a lot about their apparent passivity. By the end, they have discovered the desire to shape their own destinies. Cath, on the other hand, is put in the unsettling position of having to figure out how much of what she thought was her own free will was due to outside forces.

Listen’s story is the most heart-breaking. I cringed at her absolute acceptance of her friends’ assessment of her as a “taker” because she listens a lot but doesn’t do a lot of talking. After explaining in earnest detail why their group had to “shift away from you,” her friend Donna adds, “And this is really, really hard for us, okay?” It’s devastating, as is Listen’s subsequent failure to find any other friends at her new school.

Moriarty cuts right to the emotional heart of things. Her writing is gorgeous, her characters are odd and unique in the way that people are, and what seems to be a ludicrously far-fetched plot turns out to be … well, not exactly normal, but certainly understandable in terms of ordinary people and extraordinary love. This is a daring and thrilling book, and a damn good read. It’s my new favorite book of the year.

Will teens read this book? Sure, and I really hope that the YA designation doesn’t prevent adults from reading it as well. Librarians, writers, editors, and avid readers, do not be afraid to cross that YA/Adult border with impunity! Break down the barriers! Great books should be read by everyone.

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