I just read The Beginning of Everything, by Robyn Schneider and I have some things to say about it, but first I want to say a few words about contemporary realistic fiction, of which this is an example.
So why is it often so hard to think of contemporary realistic fiction as award-worthy? Looking at the list we have started to compile for our Mock Printz, the only ones that are straight contemporary realistic fiction are The Lucy Variations and Winger. Maybe Pieces, although am I mis-remembering or was there a bit of magical realism in that? 17 & Gone is contemporary, but there’s definitely some fantasy/magical realism going on there.
I think one of the problems is that often realistic fiction is pretty much straight romance. I’m thinking here of books I enjoyed very much this year like This is What Happy Looks Like (Jennifer E. Smith), Just One Day and Just One Year (Gayle Forman), The Moon and More (Sarah Dessen), and The Infinite Moment of Us (Lauren Myracle). It seems, though, that in order to be considered a “serious” book, contemporary realistic fiction needs to have some really major tragic event going on.
Well, interestingly enough, that’s sort of the thesis of The Beginning of Everything. Narrator Ezra has a theory–stated in the very first paragraph–that “everyone has a tragedy waiting for them . . . that everyone’s life, no matter how unremarkable, has a moment when it will become extraordinary–a single encounter after which everything that really matters will happen.”
Despite the fact that when you try to describe this book, it does sound a bit like (as one Goodreads reviewer said) a Taylor Swift song, there really is a lot more there there. So, basic plot line: Ezra finds his shallow girlfriend ch,eating on him, gets into a car accident that ruins his tennis career, and meets a new girl (who isn’t exactly a manic pixie dream girl, but comes close), and realizes how much better life is this way. Except, of course, it isn’t quite that simple, and it definitely doesn’t end the way you think it will.
There were a number of things I especially liked about this book. It does a pretty good job of depicting smart kids and the way they talk. (Incidentally, having just read Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon, I was especially intrigued by the various references in the book to Foucault and his analysis of society as a panopticon.)I liked the way these kids knew Foucault, but also Harry Potter and Seinfeld. I liked the relationship between Ezra and Cassidy, and between Ezra and Toby, who had been Ezra’s best friend in elementary school, before Ezra became “cool.”
The whole Ezra-was-once-cool-but-now-he’s-not thing, though, I had a bit of a problem with. I wondered how true-to-life it is. I know it’s a cliche that high schools have these cliques–jocks, nerds, drama geeks, etc.–but is that really true? Even in Orange County? I mean, when I was in high school, there were plenty of athletes–especially tennis players!–who were also smart kids and debaters. And clearly Ezra was already a smart kid, because he was in AP classes. So I find it a little hard to believe that simply by not being on the tennis team any more, he has become an outcast from his friends.
On the other hand, that was part of the point of the story–Ezra was the one who felt he was the outcast, and he was himself already pulling away from these so-called friends, as witnessed by the way he was distancing himself at the end-of-junior-year party that led to his car accident. And that distancing may have been what led his old friends to more or less abandon him after the injury.
At its essence, this is a coming of age novel, as Ezra starts to really think about what it is that he is interested in and what it is that he wants to do. There’s a great scene in which he and Cassidy spend a day off school just dropping into classes at the nearby university. They accidentally end up in an organic chemistry lecture, and something just clicks for Ezra, and he gets excited and starts to see possibilities for the future. It isn’t referred to again, except that it is just one example of the way that Ezra’s horizons are beginning to expand.
So the more I think about this book, the more I like it. I think it’s stronger Printz contender than, say, Winger, to mention one of our other contemporary realistic fiction possibilities. So, take a look at it, and let me know what you think.
p.s. Spoiler alert: there’s dead sibling in this book, too!