May 9, 2013
Title: Paper Covers Rock
Author: Jenny Hubbard
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: June 14, 2011
At the beginning of his junior year at a boys’ boarding school, 16-year-old Alex is devastated when he fails to save a drowning friend. When questioned, Alex and his friend Glenn, who was also at the river, begin weaving their web of lies. Plagued by guilt, Alex takes refuge in the library, telling his tale in a journal he hides behind Moby-Dick. Caught in the web with Alex and Glenn is their English teacher, Miss Dovecott, fresh out of Princeton, who suspects there’s more to what happened at the river when she perceives guilt in Alex’s writing for class. She also sees poetic talent in Alex, which she encourages. As Alex responds to her attention, he discovers his true voice, one that goes against the boarding school bravado that Glenn embraces. When Glenn becomes convinced that Miss Dovecott is out to get them, Alex must choose between them.
So basically, I didn’t really know anything about this book going into it, aside from someone dies and angsty boy narrator named Alex angsts a lot. (Not to diminish death and angsty boy narrators . . . I mean, I love both of those things. Er, well, in books at least.) So anyway, that was already enough to get me to read this, but then a friend of mine warned me that this book might be a little difficult to get into at first, because the narrative structure isn’t exactly linear and the writing style isn’t typical. Well, I say to that, I’m sold! Give me this book right now because I love anything that does strange and enticing things with words and approaches old topics from new perspectives.
So, okay, this book isn’t exactly heavy on the plot, which is fine by me. It’s very character-driven—my favourite. It’s the story of a boy dealing with the death of his friend and trying to come to terms with what role he may have played in it. He does this by writing his “not so great American novel” in a journal he keeps hidden behind a copy of Moby Dick in the school library.
Then there’s also Miss Dovecott, the young, hot, new English teacher. I mean, I’m kind of over the whole guy-gets-a-crush-on-his-hot-mentor-teacher cliche (or girl-gets-a-crush-on-her-hot-mentor-teacher cliche), but it does fit into the story nicely. Alex and his friends Glenn and Clay, who were also there the day Thomas died, think Miss Dovecott might know more about Thomas’s death than she’s letting on. After all, she was the first teacher on the scene when Thomas died, and there’s no telling what she may have seen.
Glenn is all about concocting a weird and deluded plan to get Miss Dovecott to admit more than she’s pretending. And Alex sort of agrees because friends stick together and also, hey, Miss Dovecott is hot and he dreams about kissing her so he’s all about spending more time with her however he can.
The Miss Dovecott plot line was probably my least favourite aspect of the novel. Like I said, I’m over the guy-gets-a-crush-on-his-hot-mentor-teacher cliche. Miss Dovecott encourages Alex to write more poetry because she sees something special in him, though Alex has to be careful with it because he’s afraid his poetry might reveal the truth of the night Thomas died.
(I was really kind of worried when I saw that there was poetry written by the character in the novel, because when characters write poetry or song lyrics in books it tends to be more cringeworthy than deep and inspiring. But actually, I didn’t mind Alex’s poetry and thought it was pretty good. It definitely added to the story. Poetry, after all, is often frustratingly vague and symbolic and you’re never quite sure what it’s trying to say or what it’s supposed to mean until someone points it out and you’re like, “oh, yeah, duh, that’s so obvious now.” Which fits Alex and his story because Alex is also often frustratingly vague about why he feels so guilty about Thomas’s death and why he has this “darkness” inside of him that keeps growing throughout the novel.)
Anyway, besides the Miss Dovecott thing, I think the only thing I can say I was somewhat disappointed with in this book was how everything gets tied up in the end. From the way Alex kept going on about that “darkness” in him, I guess I was expecting some bigger twist to do with him personally, maybe. There definitely were secrets revealed (and might I add, Jenny Hubbard’s pacing throughout the story is fantastic, especially considering the nonlinear narrative style, and everything came out in just the right way at just the right time). But at the same time, the ending fit the more literary and realistic style of the book—it didn’t need a huge shocking ending because real life isn’t always like that.
There were other aspects about the end that were sort of unsatisfying and made me want to shake Alex and say, “Why did you do that? Make this right!” But again, it was also all very real. (And I will say no more on that for fear of crossing into spoiler territory.)
Paper Covers Rock is a more subdued book that leaves you quietly thinking in the end, and that’s never a bad thing, though I do think it takes a certain mood to read a book like that. Thankfully, I was in just the right mood when reading it. It’s the kind of book with language at the heart of it, how we can use language, how language can hide secrets, and how those secrets change us and the language we use. (Or maybe I just really like words and like when authors use words in a different way than I’m used to.)
It’s also about friends, and honor codes, and boarding schools, and trauma, and recovery, and being a teen. And even though Alex is this incredibly self-reflexive teenage boy, and incredibly self-reflexive teens are almost always a bit unbelievable, I still think there is something really real and honest in the writing of all these characters (including Alex and his friends). Though Alex is the protagonist, each character is fully fleshed out and has their own story, and I think that’s what made me love this book so much.
Also! I have to say my favourite part was when Alex goes on a mini rant against Holden Caulfield (of The Catcher in the Rye fame) and basically says he hates his guts. I laughed a lot. I’m going to go ahead and assume this was intentional irony on the author’s part because Alex is a lot like Holden Caulfield in ways, though maybe not as ranty and polarizing as Holden (for the record, I love Holden Caulfield, and I also love Alex). (Also, I’m thinking “angsty prep school boy” should be a new genre. I would read the hell out of that.)
So, okay, I would definitely recommend this book for anyone who loves angsty prep school boys as much as I do, and all those stories like A Separate Peace and Dead Poet’s Society.