When adults write books from the perspective of children, the Problem of Precocity nearly always erupts. "No child would ever say that," the reader thinks to herself. "That's obviously written by an adult." There's a moment very early on in Karen Finneyfrock's The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door that ripped me out of the book, when Celia Door, our 14-year-old protagonist, snipes with her archnemesis, Sandy Firestone:
Sandy sighed and said, "Celia, you're so... negative."
So I said, "Well, then why don't you take me into a darkroom and see what develops?" which I thought was a clever retort regarding film cameras and photographic negatives.
But then Sandy said, "Ewww, Celia is a lesbian."
This is an exchange written without an eye for truth. (What 14-year-old girl in 2013 is going to instantaneously come up with a pun on the [to her] ancient art of film photography?) It feels like Finneyfrock needed this passage to increase the friction between Door and Firestone, and the darkroom/lesbian interplay felt too perfect to resist.
Of course, the Problem of Precocity is something every reader has to wrestle with in fiction written by adults and narrated by (and with an intended audience of) children and teenagers. The reader must genially agree to suspend disbelief for the narrative to work, and if a book is clever enough, and funny enough, and well-written enough, the author will give the reader a brilliant story in return.
Unfortunately, that's not the case with Celia Door. Finneyfrock is one of Seattle's best poets, and her most recent collection, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, is one of my favorite books of poetry. I wish I could say her first foray into young adult fiction is just as good. But it's not.
Celia Door feels like a DJ mashup of afterschool specials. The problems are all standard teen-fiction tropes: Door's parents are separated and probably going to divorce. Firestone humiliated Door publicly in the past, which caused Door to go "Dark," which means that she wears a lot of black and feels sad all the time. Throughout the novel, Door is bullied by Firestone's clique, and her plans for revenge get in the way of academics. Door's only friend is a young gay man who yearns to come out to his family.
Most of the book consists of all the standard angst and heartbreak in a by-the-numbers high-school plot before it all canters to a (realistically) happy ending. The story feels turgid, like it's barely adapted from an outline, and we're expected to care for these characters because we always care for these types of characters. Disappointingly, Finneyfrock displays none of her empathy or surprising imagery. She seems to be writing from the head and not the heart, leaving a by-the-numbers Baby-Sitters Club–style product.
Occasionally, there's life. One of Door's only confidantes is an older cousin, a college freshman at Berkeley who is going through a phase of her own. Door occasionally gets e-mails from her, and they're hilariously self-conscious little skits:
what do you think about being a freshman? promise me that you won't let high school beat the creativity out of you. the american education system is increasingly focused on improving results in biased standardized testing and not on teaching techniques that inspire creative or critical thinking. we learned about it in my social justice in the classroom course. fight standardized testing!
And the best parts of the book are when Door writes her poems. Finneyfrock smartly secreted a beginner's poetry course into her novel. Door edits her mother's increasingly terse notes into plaintive haiku, and she demonstrates different styles of poems. Door watches boys play basketball "as the earth/keeps grabbing the ball back." These boys are "practicing to be men, looking for/something they can win." Later, "Autumn stomps around outside the house," and when Door is tripped in the hallway, she writes about her "books spraying over the floor like vomit." Some of those lines probably couldn't have been written by most 14-year-old girls, but we want to believe them, because they feel true. They feel like an author telling us how the world is. We want to hear more from her.