Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti

The Secret Life of Prince Charming
by Deb Caletti
Simon Pulse, 2009
336 pages

Having been working on this book for ages (it was my "at work book" -- read during fifteen minute breaks, mostly, with the occasional half-hour lunch thrown in), once I finally finished it I put down in writing that I'd like to read pretty much everything else Deb Caletti has written. This is not my usual response to YA books, which generally get me all excited to read them and then end up disappointing me something fierce. It is even less my usual response to contemporary lit, and even less my usual response to reading a book targeted so squarely at females only (my fondness for romance novels notwithstanding). I mention that this was my at-work-book only because those books have to hit a particular, rather challenging niche: they have to be light enough that reading them in fifteen minute chunks is not a detriment to understanding the story and getting things out of the book, but engaging enough that I a) remember what happened last time, and b) want to use my precious break time to read it.

Quinn Hunt's parents are divorced, and she and her little sister Scout live with their mother, their mother's sister, and their mother's mother. After a significant period of time not seeing him at all, Quinn pushed her mother to allow her to reconnect with her father, a performer/manager/owner of a Vaudevillian stage act. The divorce was messy and the relationship between their parents continues to be acrimonious, but Quinn is desperate for a relationship with him, wants to know him and be known to him, so her mother allows it. Five years later, seventeen-year-old Quinn is generally happy with the way things are going -- she thinks. But then, during one visit, something happens. Something that changes everything, even though she desperately wants to ignore it. And suddenly Quinn finds herself on a mission with Scout and her estranged half-sister Frances Lee to meet the women of her father's past, and hopefully discover the truth of who her father is.

So we have here a tale generally about love and integrity. I've seen some people around the webs complain that it's "anti-male" and a bit heavy-handedly negative, and I find I can't quite agree. It's not even that obviously didactic in most places -- though it is didactic, and occasionally does slip a bit into blunt-force. But overall the story is so well done, and the characters so vivid, that the message(s) that Caletti wishes to convey are pretty well incorporated. That is, this is an Issues book that doesn't feel so much like an Issues book that I couldn't read it for the story and the characters. It's also the sort of Issues book I'd like every young woman in my life to read.

The topic of "love" doesn't just extend here to romantic love, though that is something of a focus, particularly of the didactic bits. But it's also a lot about familial love -- love between sisters, between parent and child, between absent parent and child. It has a lot to say about what constitutes a family. It has a fair bit to say about divorce (neither pro- nor con-, though it's clear that Caletti would like to encourage young women to avoid divorce by the dint of not letting a relationship that isn't working or isn't healthy get so far as marriage in the first place). As someone who has been extremely fortunate to grow up with an intact, generally very functional nuclear family, I learned -- grew to understand -- a lot about the challenges of kids of divorced parents. Granted, in this case, one of the parents is a tremendous asshole, and that's not always the case, but there are things I think must be common to kids who have two parents who split amicably, too. In particular the way Quinn describes the way children of divorce are expected to cope with their parents' new relationships and all that comes with them really struck me.

As to "anti-male," it's not terribly. There are a couple of examples of good, healthy, lovely relationships in the book, too -- each different from the other, but present. But anti-asshole this book definitely is. It's also very clear that while some guys are assholes, women need to take responsibility for their relationships, too. Not in a shaming sort of way, but in a way that recognizes that everyone makes mistakes -- it's about correcting that mistake, and not letting it define you or ruin your life out of some misplaced sense of obligation, fear, or shame. The book is pretty clear on the kind of damage a bad relationship can do, the consequences it can have, even when it's not technically "abusive" in the obvious meaning of the word. I wondered, as I read, where the line between just being a bad father or husband and being emotionally or psychologically abusive is. There is no answer to this in this book, but the damage done is clear and present.

Quinn is a great character; a bit of an every-girl, with a professed love of math (not explored nearly enough for my taste, barely makes a dent in the book proper) and a deep desire to do things right. She's also one of those people (I know this, because I am one) who desperately needs approval, even when its source isn't necessarily the right one. She wants people to like her, she wants to be a good daughter, she is absolutely a good sister. But she's also brave, in an accidental kind of way, and I like that it is accidental, and then she just goes along not necessarily for bravery's sake but because she's committed and doesn't want to back down. She is relatable, but not completely without her own personality; she has a strong voice, at times humourous, at times raw, always easy to read.

Not a perfect book, and not for everyone, but highly enjoyable if you enjoy contemporary women's fiction and don't mind a young adult narrator. Low-key romance, and occasionally a bit didactic, but never dull. Often funny, often touching, often thought-provoking. And both heavier, and lighter, than I've made it seem here. Looking forward to more Caletti in the future.

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