Bildungsroman lends depth to teen tragedy

[pullquote1 quotes=”true” align=”center”]Love story within love story enthralls reader[/pullquote1]

BY NINA CHIAPPETTA ’14
Contributing Writer

The Tragedy Paper is your typical forbidden-love story: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall for each other, but girl is unavailable. What makes Elizabeth Laban’s newest novel stand out from the hordes of other young adult novels is her narrative style. Laban interweaves two parallel narratives that come together in a circular fashion, much like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.

The story begins with the first narrator, Duncan, a senior at the boarding school Irving High, stuck with the worst possible dorm on campus. Upon moving in, he finds recordings from the room’s former resident, an albino and recent graduate, Tim Macbeth, Laban’s second narrator. The recordings left behind by Tim detail a clandestine affair that began the previous summer and ended in tragedy by graduation.

As Duncan struggles to find balance between his senior classes, his own budding romance, and listening to the tapes, it is Tim’s story that compels the reader to turn the page. Tim reveals an illicit relationship with the popular, pretty, and taken Vanessa. His feelings for Vanessa are strong and run deep as she treats him with respect and overlooks his albino irregularities, something many refuse to do. Their surreptitious romance is doomed from the start, however, and soon their secret begins to slip through the cracks of the dorm and out into the world, where tragedy awaits.

As all of this unfolds, both Tim and Duncan are plagued by a senior-year assignment: the (actual) tragedy paper. Assigned each year by English teacher Mr. Simon, the paper is both a literary analysis and test of character for the students. It is meant to detail one of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, to analyze their actions, and to find their fatal flaws; interestingly enough, the students begin to analyze their own actions, leading them to their personal “fatal” flaws as well.

The Tragedy Paper is a book within a book, where the second story — Tim’s story — draws more connection and sympathy from the reader. Apart from Duncan listening to Tim’s tapes, the story is told in third person, a quirk that hinders the reader’s connection with Duncan and the primary narrative.

Had Duncan’s character been told in first person, the added convenience of knowing his motivations early on would have been revealed sooner and more convincingly to the audience. This choice may have been purposeful on Laban’s part, though, encouraging the audience to focus on Tim and Vanessa. Regardless, the reader spends much time with Duncan and the interaction deserves to be fleshed out.

Apart from the narration, the only other anomaly that takes away from The Tragedy Paper is the tragedy paper itself. It plays a very minor role throughout the story, a folly of an assignment from which the novel derives its name. I kept expecting it to take on a greater role, but alas, the only real connection the paper shares with the book’s title is that both are about tragedies.

[three_fourth]Despite these two shortcomings, the book is worth a read. Dramatic tension, coupled with parallel narratives, allows for a steady pull while reading, leaving the reader anxious to find out what transpires. Laban has accomplished a beautifully told coming-of-age story and fans of the work of author John Green, the novel A Separate Peace or the film Dead Poet’s Society will definitely appreciate the sordid tale of Tim and Vanessa’s romance, wrapped in Duncan’s own.[/three_fourth]
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Review Rating:
B
Laban makes up for faults with dramatic tension and romance.

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Questions? Email Nina at nchiappe@fandm.edu.

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