Friday 10 October 2014

The Collected Works of Gabrielle Zevin, reviewed by Rachel Wheeler

The Collected Works of Gabrielle Zevin.

I’m going to be completely honest with you; I am a MASSIVE Gabrielle Zevin fan. I have all of her books. One might say I’m obsessed with them, but I would probably use the word “enchanted”.

For many years, her debut novel for young adults Elsewhere was my absolute favourite book. I got it for Christmas when I was 15 years old (a random purchase by my Mum, an excellent choice!) and I remember sitting in the room we were staying in at my Granny’s house, completely avoiding my family (and crying, because the book is both so tragic and so beautiful) because I simply had to keep reading it. It tells the story of a girl, Liz, who is sadly killed in a road accident just before her Sixteenth birthday, and ends up in a place called Elsewhere. It is a gorgeous book full of lovely words, and so many beautiful quotes; my favourite being;

A human’s life is a beautiful mess.

After that Christmas, however, I didn’t really think about seeing if Zevin had any other books out, and although I occasionally got Elsewhere off the shelf and read it (usually in one sitting, or at least the same day!) I didn’t think about it all the much, and even quite forgot all about it at one point.

Several years later I was clearing out my bedroom, fishing around under my bed, and lo and behold one of my attempts pulled out my well-worn copy of Elsewhere! Cue me spending the next 3 hours reading it, crying even more than ever before and completely neglecting my tidying duties! It was then that I decided I needed more, and naturally I got online to see what else Zevin had written.

This led me to Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac and All These Things I’ve Done- which is the first book in the Birthright Trilogy.

Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac deals with a teenage girl who suffers a fall and winds up with amnesia, finding that her personality and interests have completely changed. This is particularly tricky as she now doesn’t remember her boyfriend or find him at all attractive! The main struggle for Naomi however, is trying to do what makes her happy, without disappointing her friends and family, all of whom expect her to remember and be her ‘old self’. There is a very valuable message in this book about being honest, being yourself, and also about giving people second chances.

In contrast, All These Things I’ve Done is about New York in 2082; Chocolate is illegal (I know, I am as appalled as you are!), paper and water are very hard to come by, and our protagonist Anya- whose family are one of the main illegal chocolate manufacturers and distributors- is in a constant struggle to stay on the right side of the law, and do her best for her siblings, Leo and Natalia. Her parents are both dead from chocolate gang-related violence and her Nana- their legal carer- is bedbound, leaving Anya arranging pretty much everything, with the help from her father’s lawyer. Reading something so removed from real life is a breath of fresh air, and I was soon anticipating the release of the second book in the trilogy Because it is My Blood. Whilst browsing Zevin’s website, I found out about a competition to win a signed copy of Because it is My Blood, and you could enter with fan art. Naturally, this was my entry:

To my great delight, a couple of weeks later I found out that I was one of the winners! And after several more weeks of waiting (as the book was coming from America) I received a beautiful package in the post! The box itself was nothing special, but the book is just gorgeous. Remove the dust cover on any of the hardback books in the Birthright trilogy, and you are greeted by a chocolate bar! Not a real one, unfortunately, but I adore the attention to detail and inventiveness of the design. I was so excited to receive this book, not only was it signed but there was also a lovely personal note in there from Zevin, saying that my picture brightened her day! To be honest though, I have far more to thank her for, as her words never fail to brighten my day!

Mmm...books! Unfortunately my copy of “All These Things I’ve Done” is a paperback, so I only have two of the chocolate bars!

One of my favourite things about the Birthright trilogy, is how Zevin doesn’t shy away from challenging issues. There really are times, especially in the final book In the Age of Love and Chocolate, where you question whether our protagonist will even make it to the end of the series. Although these books are supposedly for young adults, I would certainly think plenty of adults would find them very engaging and thought provoking.
Moving onto Zevin’s books more specifically for adults; last Christmas I asked for The Hole We’re In and Margarettown. I unwrapped these on Christmas morning with much delight, and then hilarity ensued as I tried to read the blurb of Margarettown and realised that my Mum had managed to accidentally order it in Spanish! So I began with The Hole We’re In. This book takes a very different format to Zevin’s other books; every few chapters you find yourself hearing the story from a different family member’s perspective, and the story takes place over many years whilst you watch the family grow up and change. I didn’t find this quite as enchanting as Zevin’s other books, however with the subject matter (family falling outs, debt) don’t quite lend themselves to that so much anyway. The thing I do really like about this book is how down to earth and honest it is about life and families.
When I eventually got Margarettown in English, I found my new favourite book. It is about one woman, but how ultimately one woman can be many different women at once. I adore the metaphor used here. Although at times the storyline does seem a little far-fetched from realism (although to be honest if you want a realistic storyline I suggest you stick to the encyclopaedia or get an imagination... however the emotions and messages in Zevin’s work are always realistic and truthful) Margarettown can teach us all a lot about what it is to be human, how nobody is perfect and nobody is the same person every single day, but learning to love those little imperfections and changes in people is beautiful.
Margarettown proudly wore the title of being my favourite book for several months, until I got my hands on a copy of The Collected Works of A.J.Fikry (alternatively named The Storied Life of A.J.Fikry in the US, however the Collected Works is the original title.) The first thing that hit me was the gorgeous cover artwork. It is a sculpture by an artist called Su Blackwell, whose work I would highly recommend looking at! This cover hands down beats all of the other cover artwork (Yes, even the chocolate bars!), and it makes me very happy that such a beautiful book has a cover so befitting of its loveliness. As with the other books I really don’t want to give the plot away, in case someone reads this then wants to read it, but in a nutshell I would say this book is about someone being found when they didn’t even know they were lost, and also about the power of books, which seems an incredibly fitting way to round up this review, and indeed my collection (although I certainly hope there will be more books to add to it soon!).
When I mention Gabrielle Zevin to people I am still astounded at how rarely people have heard of her or her books, so I certainly hope at least one person reading this decides to give her a try, and I have to say in a way I’m almost jealous of anyone who gets to read them all for the first time! I don’t quite know how to sum up her work and do it justice, certainly my favourite thing about it is that she uses so many different topics, yet there is always a relatable message. However I think probably the best way to leave it is with a quote from Zevin herself (this one is taken from The Collected Works of A.J.Fikry):
I want to leave you with something cleverer than that, but it’s all I know.

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