It’s not about the big stuff. This idea has come up in a couple things I’ve read/listened to/watched recently. About how we focus on these big moments in our lives – The guy holding the boombox over his head blasting Peter Gabriel – And forget about the boring moments that tie everything together – The ride beside each other on the bus (yeah, yeah, I know I’m mixing movies) silent because we don’t know what to say. Those in between moments are what solidify our relationships. They are the measure of what we’re made of. How we react after the big moments are gone. Nestled on the couch over a Netflix marathon or doing the dishes or making time each other – those are the cement.
Mackler’s novel follows five teens from the time they enter high school to their graduation. Five mostly regular kids, each with their own big moments and many more small moments. The kids meet on the first day of grade nine, assigned to the same group and tasked with coming up with a freshman project. Their group decides each person will write a letter to their future self and meet again on graduation day to read the letters. And from their they go on with their lives.
Of course, the group has five dynamically different characters that will have little opportunity for overlap during their schooling. They will not be friends. We’ve got got The Breakfast Club, let’s be honest. But where the two differ is that following five divergent personalities for a couple hours over the course of day is very different from following five povs for four years. The book almost gets there. Almost. But there’s something missing. Or a little too much. You never feel that thing that clicks and makes you really need to know a character. You never get enough of any one character. We get too many characters. If this had been dropped down to four and each character fleshed out a little bit more… maybe that’s the thing.
I love the idea of a story centered around the little stuff. About aftermaths and mundanities and anticipation. Unlike the big stuff that we may not have lived through, we’ve all been in the between moments. We know what it’s like to have to move on from something that’s rocked our world (whatever that incident is). We know how we would react. We know what we would do. We can find that lifeline to the character. However, I didn’t get this with these five. The closest was probably Gregor – which is weird. I thought it would be Mia because our journeys were similar (finding your style, never really fitting in, creating your own reality, losing out on something in an attempt to be normal, realizing you need to be you) but she always felt distant, almost a caricature). Gregor’s experience was very different from mine, but his moments felt more real. Instead of living in his powerful, soul-crushing crush, or in losing his virginity, or in the moment when he finds out about his father’s death, we follow him as he buys a teddy bear for Whitney (the aforementioned crush who was also in his freshman group) but we don’t see the delivery. Moments in band practice. Moments of bickering with his sister. The sadness after his father died. Not the crushing sadness, but the trying to pick yourself back up and get to it. The little moments when the sadness comes back unexpectedly – like photo opportunities are special events. The allergic reaction that lands Gregor in the hospital is told to us from Mia’s perspective. We get Gregor’s input into the event during recovery. All these moments come together to create a quiet, insightful character that seems pretty well balanced.
I see Gregor’s path better than any of the other characters. I understand his motivation. I can see him in a story. None of the other characters have this. Whitney is the popular girl who doesn’t care about being popular. She feel shallow, even though the author seems to be trying pretty hard to make sure she’s not. I just never cared. The Whitney at the beginning wasn’t that different from the Whitney at the end. She’s the literary equivalent of a motivational quote in a fancy font posted on Facebook by someone’s mom. Mia’s motivation is never nailed down. She seems to be there mainly to remind us that the letters exist. She’s constantly pulling them out and reading them and adding her own stuff to the envelope. She knows everyone’s secrets but it never feels like it means anything. Josh and Zoe show up so sporadically that the reader never gets to know them at all. I actually forgot about Josh several times. He’s the character that could have been removed from the story without changing anything. He could have just been the guy that was Zoe’s friend by the end of the novel. He was the obligatory gay character.
I like what Mackler was trying to do. It’s important to remind a generation growing up with so much knowledge at their fingertips, with access to such big ideas and events, with the big stuff always right there, that not every moment is going to be a big moment. That learning who you are – to yourself and others – comes in the other moments. Your defining moments aren’t the accent walls. But Mackler is just a little skewed from the target. If she hadn’t included a line in the end that directly addressed the title – this infinite in between we live in – I might have missed that this was what she was trying to do. She could have worked the idea of this message throughout the fabric of the novel and given it more impact. I wanted to like this book more.