Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

Happy New Year! I'm happy to introduce you to a brand new author: Elizabeth LaBan's debut novel, The Tragedy Paper, is an enchanting wintery tale with sinister undertones. The release is well timed for January 8th, 2013.

A blizzard heralded Tim Macbeth's arrival to the elite Irving School, halfway through senior year. In the airport, his chance encounter with beautiful Vanessa snowballs into a tragedy. Tim's story is relayed on CD's left to Duncan, the student who inherits his dorm room. Duncan wishes to forget the role he played in last year's traumatic incident, but he can't resist listening to the CDs. Despite their Shakespearian names, this original story is not a retelling of Macbeth but rather an exploration of the narrative form of tragedy. At Irving, students write a tragedy paper senior year, and Tim promises that his story will inspire Duncan.

Tim is a wonderfully complex and sympathetic character. Born without pigment, he has physical challenges, such as a sensitivity to bright light, but his biggest problem is low self esteem. Tim assumes that being albino makes him an unlovable freak, although other than startled reactions from strangers and his lack of friends, there is no tangible evidence of prejudice in the book. I would have liked a flashback to an event that had traumatized him into being so reclusive, but his insecurities around a popular girl and his foolish behavior to impress her are generally relatable and true to teenaged boys. There is also plenty more to Tim than his disability. He's a sensitive, creative and kind person with a unique perspective on life.

I wish Duncan, the present day narrator, had been as well developed as Tim. Duncan seems to exist only as a narrative foil, reacting to Tim's story without carving out his own narrative arc. Often I had trouble marking the transition from one voice to another, but this might be a problem particular to the digital galley, which I read on my Kindle. Hopefully the final print version uses different fonts. Having Tim's voice in first person and Duncan's voice in third person meant I wasn't lost for long.

The Tragedy Paper reminded me of two other popular books, and I suspect it will do well. Using CD's to tell a story is a similar narrative device to the tapes in Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why. LaBan's novel also shared common elements with Donna Tartt's A Secret History, a favorite of mine in adult literary fictionBoth books share a gorgeous New England campus setting, a secret society, a charismatic teacher and a tragic story in the past. However, The Tragedy Paper's tragic event felt a bit anticlimactic after all the build up, perhaps in comparison to the other two books, or maybe because LaBan's story was geared to a younger audience. As such, The Tragedy Paper is appropriate for even preteens and would appeal to both boys and girls as well as adult readers of young adult fiction.

With its evocative, literary writing and true teen voice, The Tragedy Paper is an impressive debut. The cover art is gorgeous too. I'm curious to see what LaBan will write next. Disclosure: I received a free digital galley from NetGalley for review purposes.

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@Barrie Summy


Rose said...

The cover of this book is beautiful! Sounds like an intriguing story that teens will like.

Missed the book review club meeting again this month, but I have been reading. I just finished "Flight Behavior" and loved it! It's the first Kingsolver novel I've read, and I know now it won't be my last. Thanks for the great review of it this past year, which prompted me to read it.

Barrie said...

That is a striking cover. I like books with both 3rd and 1st person, and you don't see that too often. Do you think having Duncan's voice in 3rd made him seem less developed as a character? I haven't read A Secret History either... Thanks for reviewing, Sarah!

Ellen Booraem said...

That's an interesting thought, Barrie--I was just talking to my school writers group today about "voice," and how it's easier to get the voice right in first person than third. Maybe that's part of the problem here.

Great review as always, Sarah. The book sounds interesting, although the passive main character might be a serious flaw for me.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, I’m so happy to hear that you loved Kingsolver. I thought you would. The Tragedy Paper would be a good one to recommend to teens.

Barrie and Ellen, interesting point about the 3rd person narration creating distance. I don’t think that was a big problem in this book because the perspective got inside Duncan’s head. The bigger problem was Duncan’s lack of back-story or present story, independent from Tim. Even in the present tense, Duncan acted in response to Tim’s actions last year, trying to avoid his mistakes. Duncan felt more like a narrator than a protagonist. Tim was clearly the MC and very well developed so don’t pass on this book due to Duncan. We still love The Great Gatsby even though Nick Carraway is Gatsby’s pale shadow. Overall, I really enjoyed The Tragedy Paper and your questions got me thinking why the story still worked despite this flaw. Few books are perfect and this was an impressive book for a debut.

Unknown said...

Wow! You were able to draw quite a number of parallels between this book and the two others. I wonder if the author was inspired by them...

That cover draws you right into the story, doesn't it? Great review!


Alyson | New England Living said...

The cover art alone would draw me in to pick it up and probably buy it! Very intrigued to read this one. It will go in my amazon wish list! Thanks for your continuing book reviews! I have picked up more than one book because of you.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Great review, Sarah. Not sure this would be my cup of tea, but it's an interesting concept. And the cover is gorgeous!

David Cranmer said...

Cover is a beauty. And you have sold me on the plot, Sarah.

Gloria Baker said...

Happy New year dear, this book sounds nice, great review, hope arrive here Sarah not all books arrive here:(

cynthia newberry martin said...

I love the cover art too. Happy new year!

A Cuban In London said...

I've heard a lot about Donna Tart's novel so I'd be tempted to try The Tragedy Paper. Thanks for the in-depth review.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa and Linda, thanks! I enjoyed your book reviews too.

Alysson, David and ACIL, do come back and let us know what you thought of The Tragedy Paper. I’m pleased to hear that my book recommendations resonate with you.

Gloria, you can check the author’s website to see if rights sell to Chile. You can also buy the ebook on American Amazon to read in English.

Cynthia, Happy New Year to you too!