Monday, June 8, 2009

Someday my prince will come

The Secret Life of Prince Charming was a very interesting book. I liked it. I kept asking myself, though, is it a book for teenagers (the cover certainly is!)? I've never read anything by Deb Caletti before, so I can't compare this to her other titles, but it did seem to have a certain "adult" feel in spite of the heroine's status as an almost high school senior. It's the story of Quinn Hunt, eldest daughter of divorced parents. In her mother's house, it's all women: Mother, grandmother, aunt (mom's stepsister), Quinn and little sister Sprout (aka Charlotte). In the past few years, Sprout and Quinn have taken regular train trips from Seattle to Portland to visit their dad, the charismatic Barry, who is a professional juggler (I wondered if Caletti modeled Barry's troupe on the marvelous Flying Karamazov Brothers) and full-time womanizer.

[Parenthetic digression: When books (or movies) take place in your home town, do you spend (too much?) time searching for clues about locations? I do. Much of the earlier chapters were devoted to vaguely trying to figure out where Barry actually lives in Portland. He lives in a cute cottage on the river, and there aren't very many places in Portland where you can live in a cute cottage on the river. Perhaps he lives on Sauvie Island?]

Quinn's female relatives are a bit jaded in the romance department, and openly share their cautionary tales. And posted on the family's refrigerator is a long list of things that the women of the family should watch out for in potential boyfriends. One day, Quinn and Sprout show up at the train station in Portland and are picked up by their Dad, instead of their Dad's girlfriend Brie. (Mom, up in suburban Seattle, does make a cheese comment, naturally.) Brie has moved out, and it shortly becomes obvious to his daughters that Dad has moved on. Then, Quinn spots something in her father's living room that she thinks belongs to Brie. When she presses her father about why it's in his possession, he lies to her. Further investigation reveals that Barry's house is filled with stolen mementos from his former girlfriends/wives. So Quinn contacts her father's oldest daughter, Frances Lee, for advice. And soon, Frances Lee has organized a Pacific Northwest road trip where Barry's three daughters will secretly collect his trophies and get them back to their original owners.

So, it's a road trip novel (one complete with an oversized Big Boy). And, like any literary road trip, Quinn finds out a lot of stuff she didn't know about her father ... but she finds out even more about herself. There's a cute boy, of course. Baby Sprout grows up into Charlotte. Frances Lee quits smoking. Quinn learns that the woman who broke up her parents' marriage isn't a monster. And even though Dad is really a soul-sucking narcissist, Quinn continues to love him. But in a healthy way. It's an entertaining story full of real people and interesting personal stories.

Sprinkled throughout the narrative are the personal stories of love found, hearts broken, and lessons learned by the women in Barry Hunt's life. The narrative stops to listen to these, and sometimes the events that follow relate to the story and sometimes they don't. I believe that Quinn -- who is telling us the narrative -- has no knowledge of these stories. They are just there. After a while, they feel lecture-ish. And they mostly resonate of middle-age reflection on foolish youth. Are teen readers just going to flip the pages here, so they can get on with the story, or will they read them? Will they feel like their mother is talking to them?

The narrator is Jeannie Stith, whose voice I recently heard on Wintergirls. I didn't think her performance was as good here. Quinn is a person on a much more even keel than Lia, of course, so there wasn't the opportunity for the vocal extremes of the latter role. And, to be fair, Stith does do a fine job of portraying Quinn. She sounds like a teenager. It was creating the other characters that seemed more difficult for her.

Everyone seemed like a stock character, and so no one sounded like a real person. Sprout, age 11, sounded much younger and Gram, age indeterminate, sounded too quavery and feeble. Frances Lee, who I think was supposed to be a hippie free-spirit type, just sounded loud and overly emphatic. The adult women in the story seemed interchangeable to me, and the two young men in Quinn's life had a too-hearty way of declaring their dialogue. Most disappointing though, was Barry. He's supposed to be sexy and charismatic; I wanted to understand why all those women were so attracted to him. He just did not come across that way in Stith's performance. He pretty much sounded like any other divorced dad (whatever they sound like).

So, I've got mixed feelings about this one, both as novel and as audiobook. My library's 16 copies are all checked out, so clearly people are giving it a try. I think it's that great cover.

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