Year Published: 1996
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
The Year is 1950, and in a small town on Cape Cod 28-year-old librarian Peggy Cort feels as if love and life have stood her up. Until the day James Carlson Sweatt - the 'over-tall' eleven-year-old boy who's the talk of the town - walks into her library and changes her life forever. Two misfits whose lonely paths cross at the circulation desk, Peggy and James are odd candidates for friendship, but nevertheless they still find their lives entwined in ways that neither one could have predicted. In James, Peggy discovers the one person who's ever really understood her, and as he grows - six foot five at the age of twelve, then seven foot, then eight - so does her heart and their most singular romance.
Honestly, I am not a big fan of romance novels. I think there are much more interesting things to read about than people falling in love. Give me death, mayhem, dystopian worlds, tragic poetic figures and internal conflict any day, over soppy romance. This book, however, was not a soppy romance. Nor did it involve two people making eyes at each other across a table or silly misunderstandings. This was the most unusual romance novel I have ever read.
This novel is about a boy who has a disease. A disease that means he does not stop growing. A disease that will eventually kill him. It is also about a woman. A lonely librarian who is too sensible for love. Peggy is the kind of person who prefers the order and structure of her library over the unknown possibilities relationships bring.
When Peggy meets James, a boy seventeen years her junior, she finds something she has been lacking; a friend. Peggy and James are similar in so many ways. Both are uncomfortable in their lives and both are lonely in their own way. This part of the story, I could understand and I almost found it warming that friendship can be found in the most unlikely places. As their friendship progressed into a "romance" of sorts, I started to struggle.
Peggy decided early on in the novel, when she became aware to the fact that James would not live a long life, that she would love him. She made an active decision to love this boy in every way possible. If this was just the love of a friend, I would have enjoyed that. But, it wasn't just that. Peggy is the sort of person that is so afraid of falling in love, that she put all her unused feelings on a young boy with health issues, who she knew very well was going to die, all because that was easier than living her life unreservedly. Peggy is a coward.
Now don't get me wrong, Peggy was good to James, she helped him whenever he needed it but as he got older Peggy got weirder. When James was a teenager Peggy was jealous of his female friends. If James showed an interest in anyone but her, she was hurt and angry. She even took to following James at times, watching him from a distance, to see what he was doing. Peggy was obsessed. Obsessed with a young boy who was out of her reach.
That said, I still found the inevitable ending of this novel a bit sad. James lived such a short life, but a hard one. You would have to have a heart of steel not to feel for him. Life is not fair.
Peggy, however, was not a character I could warm to. She made silly choices and took advantage of a child. I really don't think this is how the author intended the reader to see Peggy (granted she was forthcoming with her faults but I think we are supposed to "warm" to them - I think we are supposed to see Peggy as strange but endearing), but I just could not sympathise with a grown woman who decided the love of her life was going to be a sick child.
Maybe I missed the point. Maybe this novel was supposed to be about love overcoming everything! Age, height, death. Maybe Peggy was supposed to be seen as a kind of hero? The kind of selfless person who would give her life to make another happy. Maybe.
I did like the way Elizabeth McCracken writes. Her prose is flowing and seamless. Her ideas however, are offbeat and her idea of romance is so very different to my own. I applaud her for having the courage to write such a difficult and unusual story and would happily read another book by her. In the case of this novel, however, I am still trying to decide if I liked it or not... I am conflicted.