When You Reach Me: A Book of Questions?

Stead, 2009

Hi all:

I know you’ve all been here before: that moment of mental wandering when you try to imagine how you would summarize the book you just read, should you ever have the opportunity to do so. Sometimes this comes quite naturally. However, sometimes you get a book like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me and (at least for me!) it’s a bit more challenging.

As I was sitting here contemplating the conundrum of how I would go about describing it, it occurred to me that part of my problem in finding the angle that would best describe it is that I’m not entirely certain what genre the book fits into.

Yes, yes, I know. I can look up online what the publishing houses choose to categorize it as just as readily as the next person, but this gentle story of a young girl coming of age in New York City with a single mother really seems to tell too much of a story to fit squarely into any one category. It’s not purely a coming-of-age story, nor is it simply a story about the challenges families face. Marcus introduces time travel into the equation, leading towards a science fiction bent, as do the regular references to protagonist Miranda’s favorite book, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, but that’s not really what the story’s about, either. Despite friend triangles (Miranda-Annemarie-Julia and Miranda-Annemarie-Colin and even Miranda-Sal, to name a few), the book isn’t really just about friendships. The book addresses the issues of class (Annemarie’s doorman’d apartment building and Julia’s diamond ring v. Sal and Miranda’s tenement-style apartment building with hole-y furniture v. the laughing man’s “bed” under the mailbox), but doesn’t seem to dwell on them. It touches on racial concerns (Julia’s caramel/cafe au lait looks and Jimmy’s Indian background), but this is just one of many subpoints here. Are you starting to see where this is complex?

Perhaps the most constant question presented in the narrative is just that: questions. The book’s air of mystery is consistent, though it’s not really just mystery. Really, it’s questions. And the book itself does an intriguing job of breaking down it’s presented mysteries into bite-size question nuggets: who’s leaving notes, why Sal stopped being friends with Miranda, who stole Jimmy’s $2 bill jar, why did Marcus punch Sal in the stomach, why can’t Richard have an apartment key, Miranda’s mother’s preparation for and participation in the televised game show (which both require her superior ability to answer questions), and the many other unknowns throughout, all present an air of question to the story. These aren’t all necessarily mysteries, per se, but open question marks that Miranda–bit by bit–finds answers to or clues to help her better understand. I feel that the idea of clue-collecting in particular is especially essential to this story because–whether it’s a relationship, a weird event, a strange conversation, whatever–the constant seems to be missing pieces, which she eventually is able to put together. But that poses yet another question: can question answering be a genre? Personally, I think not.

As you read this book, what did you think? What theme(s) stood out the most to you? What genre would you place this in (assuming YA Lit isn’ t a proper genre, in and of itself)? Or do you have a different interpretation of the text?

–JMF

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