Book Review – “…Or Not?”

...Or Not?…Or Not? by Brian Mandabach
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This may not be the kind of young adult fiction that a thirty-something can appreciate. But I went in wanting to like it.

Our protagonist Cassie is a 13-going-on-14-year-old vegan, child of liberal parents (whose views she seems to share wholly, aside from the veganism), social misfit. Okay, she hasn’t thought about the class system yet or the roots of poverty. Okay, she says she’s patriotic even though she won’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at school and she refuses to sing “Proud To Be an American” in choir (but “America the Beautiful” is okay…) — no, all the contradictions haven’t exactly been worked out. She isn’t a role model for the internationalist, anti-capitalist kids I hope my peers are raising. But yes, she is vegan and she does speak up for evolution when her Christian classmates challenge a science article. So there’s potential.

To be honest, Cassie is the kind of girl who would have terrified me as a junior-high student. Not because our core views were really all that different, but because Cassie so obviously opposes the “system.” I wouldn’t have understood the Pledge of Allegiance thing, or purposefully throwing a standardized test. And I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the atheist thing. In my junior high, I was a bit of a weirdo for taking Catholic social teaching seriously (like don’t kill. Seriously, don’t). So it was difficult, reading this novel, to accept the realism of a junior-high class that turns on a student because she doesn’t believe that the earth is 6,000-years-old or that Jesus is behind the stars. Perhaps the distance in generation (pre-9/11 v. post-) between me and Cassie, or geographic location (New Jersey v. Colorado), explains it.

Or maybe the authorship just isn’t all there. The novel consists of Cassie’s diary entries as she enters eighth grade, as well as three variations on a short story she completes for writing club. To his credit, Mandabach has written what I believe is a pretty realistic vision of this girl’s diary and inner world, proof that his experience as a teacher and parent has paid off. What it also proves to me, however, is that fictional diaries are not particularly fun or edifying to read.

I spent most of the 400-pages waiting for a plot to show up. Is it about Cassie’s relationship with her brother’s girlfriend Ally, the slightly older mentor to assure her “it gets better”? Is it Cassie recovering from depression and making peace with the world as it is? Is it her slowly developing relationship with the other misfits in her class, especially one boy? It’s all of these, and none of them, and in that sense reflects the messiness of real life. But I had expected at least to find the novel revolving around a central political question — must Cassie sing the hated song? Or will she be allowed to sit out? Will this lead to other students refusing to sing songs they object to, and will that snowball into some larger exploration of civil liberties?

But no.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a novel that doesn’t neatly present a conflict and resolution. But without a central plot, either internal or external, the author has to give the reader better clues to why we should keep reading. Aside from Cassie, I got very little sense of who or what the characters are like, precisely because we only see them through Cassie’s eyes in her journal. (I wasn’t particularly deft at character development when I was a teenager writing in my diary, either…) When Cassie starts to form a friendship and then more than a friendship with a particular boy, I couldn’t remember a thing about him from earlier in the novel, except that he’d been mentioned as another of her classmates that hung out with the misfits. The same went for Cassie’s original lunch-table-mates and tormenters (as far as I am concerned, an interchangeable group of shy Christian girls, and aggressive Christian girls and boys, respectively).

Other characters are introduced as if they will be significant, and then never show up to do anything significant, such as the one nice teacher at the school who runs Tolkien and writing club, and the school librarian who offers Cassie a refuge during lunch-time. A big deal is made, late in the novel, about Cassie going to therapy. After describing her first session in detail, her second session is only mentioned (okay, fine, we don’t need a play-by-play every time…)…and she never goes again, an entire plot point tossed away when Cassie simply asserts “I was never going there again.” This is, I believe, one way genre fiction tends to be stronger than general fiction; you just don’t find this kind of non-starter stuff in sci-fi or mysteries.

I did appreciate the realistic way, however, Mandabach handles the reality of things like suicidal thoughts, heavy fictional stories, and parental concern for teenagers. It’s a society where parents and educators are held responsible for kids’ total well-being — from predicting the kids who are suicidal or homicidal to just bullies or early drinkers or sex-havers — and preventing all risky and harmful behavior, while parents and educators don’t actually have the power to change the circumstances that make kids feel suicidal or homicidal, or like being drunk; and this translates to protectiveness and overreactions that Cassie’s diary keenly reflects. Her teachers and parents can respond to symptoms, but never root causes. When she writes a story that features the main character’s suicide, her teacher calls in administrators and parents for what amounts to an intervention. The concern would be comical if it weren’t so serious and so stifling. (On a side note: I found Cassie’s parents, particularly her lawyer, snappy-quipping dad, absolutely insufferable, a parody of actually cool, supportive parents, who do exist and have intelligent conversations with their children.)

Veganism is a feature of Cassie’s character that fits both her sensitivity to suffering and her connection to the natural world. With her love for vinyl records and disdain for most later technologies (this is actually a teenager who does not watch TV), she seems well on her way to primitive anarchism. While Mandabach gets a lot of things right about being vegan and living your life — Cassie orders a cheese-less pizza when she’s out with her friends, she buys her first make-up only after learning it’s all vegan — some of it felt out-of-step. Early in the novel, she describes her family’s cabin and her father and brother fishing. I kept waiting for her vegan’s-eye-view of the subject, but instead we first get a romantic description of her dad whispering to the fish as he catches-and-releases. Later, Cassie describes how, the year she was first vegan, she ruined the annual fishing trip by throwing a stone to scare the fish away right as her brother cast. After a physical fight between the siblings, Dad decided to cut the trip short: “No fish will bleed this day.” But that’s all we get. Whatever easy or uneasy truce Cassie reached with her family about fishing since then (because the other members of the family do continue to fish and Cassie presumably objects), this is left unsaid. It would have only taken another sentence or two, but Mandabach never re-visits it. Either it didn’t seem important to the author (who is not vegan, but does love fishing…) or he believed he’d already pushed his non-vegan audience far enough into animal rights territory. This is clearly not the story he wants to tell, or where his interests lie.

A worthy effort, with some very keen moments, but like many real diaries that get published, this one could have used some more editing.

View all my reviews

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