Tim Macbeth is used to attention — just not the kind he’d want. As an albino teen, it’s rare that his appearance doesn’t set off a wave of stares and whispers. At the encouragement of his mother and stepfather, switching to a prestigious New York boarding school to finish his senior year seems like a chance at a fresh start . . . but whether or not he has any fun, Tim already has his college career hand-selected and waiting for him. He just has to get through the next few months.
Then he meets Vanessa Sheller. On a snowy night in Chicago, a canceled flight pushes two strangers together in a shuttered airport. Unused to being treated “normally,” especially by a beautiful girl, Tim questions everything about their time together — but never the way he’s starting to feel about her. When the two are surprisingly reunited at the Irving School, Tim assumes he’ll go back to feeling marginalized and alone. That Vanessa, so popular and lovely, will forget all about him.
But she doesn’t.
Elizabeth LaBan’s The Tragedy Paper is an arresting, heart-in-your-throat young adult novel that clamped its hooks in me the way only the best teen fiction can do. Though I could draw similarities between the novel and John Green’s Looking For Alaska, LaBan has penned a story that is wholly her own. We’re given an entertaining, heartbreaking and fast-paced beginning and middle, a book I really couldn’t put down . . . and maybe that’s why I wound up feeling let down and conflicted by the close. But we’ll get there.
So my description, written as carefully to avoid spoilers as I could, fails to mention the second of our two narrators: Duncan. A semester after Tim’s story unfolds, we know some Terrible, Rotten, No Good, Very Bad Thing has happened — and it’s Duncan who feels awful about it. Tim records the full, unedited story of his hidden life with Vanessa for Duncan to find and . . . hopefully release his guilt? Understand why things went down as they did? Forgive himself? Maybe all of the above.
So Duncan’s story is told in real time, and Tim’s is a recollection of the past. I was fully immersed in both worlds, though I tended to favor Tim’s storytelling (and his plot line was simply more interesting). I spent most of The Tragedy Paper, so named for a thesis all seniors must complete for English class, trying to figure out Duncan’s role in this Terrible, Awful Thing that transpires. Beyond that, he was a little dull.
But that’s not entirely Duncan’s fault. It’s just that Tim is so intelligent, wry, endearing — charismatic precisely because he believes that’s something he’ll never be. As he recalls the evening he spends with Vanessa in Chicago, I could feel the raw and gut-wrenching emotion Tim experiences at being so close to something he believes he’ll never have. Though he doesn’t believe he’s obsessed with his appearance, Tim’s albinism influences every aspect of his life. It makes him feel so distinctly “Other” that he fails to connect with friends — anyone aside from his family and teachers. That separateness is exactly why I believe he falls so hard for Vanessa. It’s all so very “Gatsby”-esque, you know? She is the physical embodiment of a life he’ll never have.
So how to explain her feelings?
Vanessa is a puzzling character. For one, she has a boyfriend. Not that, you know, that’s a huge thing to change when you’re 17 — but the boyfriend, of course, is a jerk. Tim stands in stark contrast to Patrick, the brutish jock who decides early on that his girlfriend’s associations with the new albino kid just aren’t going to work. I spent most of the story waiting for a big blow-out, on edge and nervous about where LaBan was taking us.
I can’t fully express how sucked into this story I was until the final chapters, friends, and maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time coping with the eventual truth. As Duncan finally discovers — and reveals — what happened during an ill-fated senior prank, I got angry. Confused. Disappointed. Not because I couldn’t handle the truth — because I couldn’t help but rage, That’s it? THAT’S IT?
Because seriously. Seriously. We’ve just traveled 300-ish pages with Duncan feeling all guilty and sick and sorrowful for something that happened and Vanessa being all cute but flighty and Tim revealing in pieces and puzzles what actually happened on one snowy evening at the Irving School and I thought, “OMG, something crazy and terrible is going to happen!” but then . . .
Do I still recommend The Tragedy Paper? Absolutely. LaBan’s writing is strong and affecting and interesting. Tim is such a unique, excellent character — vulnerable, tough, worldly, brave, as stupid in the face of love as any of us. Despite feeling like someone had popped my “Go Tim!” balloon by the close, I was too drawn into the novel to rate it anything less than four stars.
Fans of John Green, realistic teen fiction, boarding school settings and strong first-person narration will find plenty to love in LaBan’s novel. The overarching idea of “tragedy” — what is a tragedy? what’s not a tragedy? — was compelling, too, and provided a fascinating lens through which to view the story. Was the conclusion truly a tragedy? Was it avoidable? If it was avoidable, is that what truly makes it a tragedy? Or was it all just . . . meant to be?
I have so many questions, so many talking points since finishing . . . and this isn’t a story I’ll get out of my head anytime soon.
4 out of 5!