Thursday, July 3, 2008

Deanna's story

A friend recommended Story of a Girl when it was published last year (before the National Book Award nominations ... yikes, my third audio NBA in nearly as many books!) and in reading I really enjoyed the original voice of Deanna Lambert as created by Sara Zarr. I'm waiting for the audio version of Sweethearts, which is coming later this year? On the other hand, maybe I'm not waiting because I wasn't wild about the author's reading of her own book (and she's reading Sweethearts too). Just to be clear, Zarr read professionally, she has a lovely sounding voice (no odd tics like Sherman Alexie), she paced herself well, it was obvious that she was very confident and familiar with Deanna and her story.

Deanna has been known as the town skank ever since her father found her having sex with an older boy when she was 13 years old. At 17, though, Deanna has decided that it's time to take back her story and tell it properly. Her journey is a powerful one: She makes mistakes, she misjudges those around her, but she learns to move on. It's uplifting in a very honest way (not in a manipulative, cheesy, dare-I-say inspirational way).

I think I wanted more from the reader: I heard Zarr reading in that way that authors do when they are reading their work at libraries and bookstores, almost as if they are afraid of emoting -- because they are writers, not actors. They choose a deliberate near-monotone, perhaps they think their words are enough. Audiobook listeners want more -- we want to hear rage and elation and everything in between (is there much between rage and elation?). We're OK without narrator pyrotechnics, we don't need a unique voice for every character, but I think we do want character! I found Zarr's reading just a bit too subdued. While thinking this, I believe I did hear a narrator's decision: At the beginning of the novel, Deanna is nothing, she has closed herself down. Zarr's monotone could be Deanna. Yet, as Deanna reclaims her story, I did hear more from Zarr -- her reading was tinged with more emotion. I got the faintest hint of that deservedly angry young woman, ready to move on with her story.

I sit firmly on the fence here, waiting for my colleagues to convince me!


Sara Z. said...

I promise I don't make a habit of responding to every blog post that mentions my name, and I've definitely never responded to a review as a writer, but since the audiobook thing is completely new to me I've been really interested to hear responses. Your review in particular is interesting to me because it goes right to the conversations held between reader and director in the studio, and the kinds of questions I had for myself when I auditioned for this project. (I did have to audition - a fun experience in itself!)

Before we started, the director and I talked about acting vs. reading, and her philosophy was not to act but to "inhabit the character" and leave plenty of room for the listener to experience her own emotion. With the past-tense narration, we imagined Deanna retelling her story rather than experiencing it in the moment, and therefore the presentation would be subdued and matter-of-fact - a sort of "this is what happened" approach.

However, as you point out, I'm sure not every listener is going to respond to that and will want more out of it. With a different choice, you risk overacting it and then robbing the listener of the experience of finding her own emotion in the story. Nailing that balance is part of what makes the difference between an experienced reader and newbie, like me. You're right, though, that the level of "acting" vs. "reading" is a definite choice made by the director and reader.

I'll be interested to hear what you think of Sweethearts. We took the same approach with that, but by the time we started it I'd had two whole days experience under my belt so maybe you'll hear some improvement on striking that balance!

Thanks for the thoughtful review and most of all for the distraction from what I'm supposed to be doing right now...

leecat said...

Hello Sara! I'm honored by your visit to my blog and I really appreciate your insight about the narrating process. Story of a Girl has been nominated for inclusion in our 2009 list of "Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults" (, so there'll be nine different listeners thinking about how you read!

I'm glad to have provided some distraction ... :-) ...