Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Alive and Well in Prague, New York

by Daphne Grab
HarperTeen Books
Reviewed by Melissa

Matisse -- daughter of two New York City artists -- has a problem. Actually, she has a couple. Her father has Parkinson's Disease, which is slowly advancing and making it more and more difficult for him to get around. And because of her father's illness, her parents decide to leave the big city for Prague, in upstate New York. Matisse is appalled: how could they do this to her? Eventually, she makes friends and peace with things, and this book is the story of that process.

Grab's first novel isn't a big affair -- nothing overly dramatic or life-shattering happens -- but rather the story of a girl trying to come to terms with her life. Because the book is character-rather than plot-driven, it was important that Matisse be a sympathetic, interesting character. In that, Grab succeeds. Matisse is an interesting, though conflicted, person, someone who seems real and easily relatable. She's a strong character, not only self-assured -- knowing what she wants out of high school -- but also someone willing to stand up for herself and her friends against the small-town rumor mills she runs afoul of. I liked that Matisse, for all her strengths, wasn't all gung-ho about moving, initially going through rejection pains until she figures out life would be better with a friend. In the end, she picked wonderful people she for friends: Violet, the other "normal" (read: non-cheerleader) girl in the school, but also Hal, the Zen-practicing organic farmer wannabe and even Marco, the sardonic quarterback for the football team. They added not only diversity to the book -- they were similar enough to Matisse that I could imagine her seeking them out, but also different enough to challenge and stretch Matisse as a character -- but they were fun and interesting in their own right.

I also liked that neither the big city nor the small town were idealized; both have their merits and detractions, and while Matisse felt more comfortable in New York City, she eventually learned to accept and maybe even like the things Prague had to offer. Even if it isn't vintage clothes and rugelagch.

The crux of the book lies in Matisse's relationship with her father. Matisse wants her father the way he used to be, before the onset of Parkinson's, and fights not only the changes the disease is forcing upon the family, but the fact that she feels her father is pulling away from their previously close relationship because of it. Because of this, the story becomes one of parents and children, of making it through difficult times and for everyone who knows someone who has gone through a debilitating disease. And those of us who haven't, can get a glimpse into what it takes (a lot) to make it through.

My only complaint is that the book seemed to cover too much time -- it had to, in a way, for the maturing Matisse went through to be logical and make sense. But, because of that, it felt choppy at times, like I was reading the highlights of Matisse's life (I think the whole action took place over 3 months) rather than feeling immersed in it. But that's a small quibble. Overall, it's a strong first novel from Grab, one with promise -- not only for the characters but also for future books from Grab.

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