Okay, I’m just going to jump right in today with a pet peeve I have when it comes to books (and this novel is the worst offender I’ve found since George RR Martin started making his books 4000 pages apiece!): I hate when a book is shaped in such way that it’s painfully difficult to hold with one hand. I don’t know how other people read, but I prefer to hold a book with my left hand, using my pinky to hold down the pages on the right. This allows for the quickest page turning; since a book slowing me down physically also slows me down mentally, I have a much harder time dropping into the written world if I have to handle an awkward one.
The Selected Works of TS Spivet is almost square in its dimension – an unusual shape for a novel – and it’s 370 pages of heavy paper. I was probably 50 pages in when I had to find my wrist brace. I was 110 pages in when I finally broke down and constructed a novel-holder using a precariously balanced yoga bolster stretched across a chair. If I hadn’t done that, I’m not sure I could have finished the book.
This doesn’t bode so well for the review, does it? Normally when I’m that far into a book, I have a standard of interest I have to meet in order to keep going. I’ll be honest with you – this book didn’t meet it for me, but I kept going for three reasons:
Reason 1: Two people recommended it to me, and I have good reason to trust in their perceptions of my taste.
Reason 2: This is a beautiful, well-written, and thoughtfully illustrated novel, and I could tell that the problem was not the book – it was me.
Reason 3: This book describes exactly what I imagine my husband to have been like at twelve years old.
Reason 1 is pretty self-explanatory. If I trust that you understand what I like in a book, I will give you many, many pages before I decide you were wrong. You’ve earned that from me, and I like to extend that respect for as long as possible, since once you’ve been wrong, it’s harder for me to buy in the next time you suggest a title.
Reason 2 and reason 3 are connected and integral to my overall impression of this novel.
You see, I’m not scientifically minded – not even a little bit. I relate to the world in terms of my relationships with other people; I’ve been told that may be one of the reasons I was drawn to working with young children. I find it terrifically easy to empathize with others and to tailor my approach accordingly. I even enjoy compromise.
My ideas about the world and how it works are, well, the nice word is “flexible,” but I’ve heard “wishy-washy” more often. I just don’t tend to take a hard stand and then break that argument down into parts that can be rationally attributed to tangible sources. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the rational mind – I do – but I physically cannot figure out to make my brain work the way TS Spivet’s does in this novel.
To be fair, he’s a genius cartographer (and as much as I hated the shape of the book, the illustrations and maps found on almost every page make it worth finding in paperback rather than an e-format), but he’s also twelve. How can I not be smart enough to follow the ideas of a twelve-year-old? That’s what I spent the first half of the book wondering. I love children, and I love history and adventures, and this book has all three (in addition to science, science, and oh yes, science); honestly, I felt so stupid that it was nearly impossible to relate.
How, you may be wondering, could you then have married a person whose very way of thinking is inclined to make you feel like a complete idiot? How, indeed. Well, to be honest, most of the time, he saves his big ideas for the office where other engineer-brained people apparently have a grand time picking each other’s ideas apart into their most primal states. Also, he’s not twelve anymore, and he’s learned how to temper his own approach to the world with the knowledge that we don’t all think the same way.
The only time I genuinely feel stupid in his presence (and of course, there had to be a time) is when we’re in the car with his father and sister. You see, one of our favorite hobbies is white water rafting, and every summer, we congregate in Colorado and drive to whichever river coughed up a permit. These drives take, on average, 8-12 hours. You see, David is a software engineer. His sister is getting her PhD in Neuroscience. His father spent his career as an atmospheric chemist. Do you want to know how this family entertains themselves on long car trips (I’ll give you a guess and it’s not license plate bingo…)? They take turns devising theoretical problems, then they discuss potential abstract solutions. (His sister actually does this while simultaneously solving 9×9 Ken Ken puzzles.) Do you know what I do during these rides? I listen to show tunes on my iPod and make up stories in my head about the troll people who live in the Rocky Mountains.
You have to understand – it’s not that I don’t want to understand this scientific approach – I just have no idea how to go about thinking about ideas this way. It made reading this book incredibly painful at times, even as I watched this boy struggling to fit into a world filled with people more like me than they are like him. I have an easy time adapting to social situations; this child views the world through a much more complex lens. He has to work so much harder to gain traction with other people, and yet I found myself jealous of him. I’m envious of his exquisite attention to detail, of his ability to easily comprehend vast data sets, of his wild, brave, out-of-the-box thinking. And I am scared, looking into my own future, that I could have a child like this someday – a child so much more like my husband – a child who would require me work even harder to break down the walls around how I view the world in order to reconcile our differences.
Honestly, it’s rare for me to have such a love/hate relationship with a book. The story is impeccable, the writing a cut above. Larsen absolutely nails this character, and his family, and his adventure across the country from the isolated ranches of Montana to Washington, DC. I have absolutely no criticism to share about his style, his decision to use footnotes and illustrations as mental tangents for TS, or his ability to create a compelling story about a person who just happens to be my polar opposite. Sure, my hands and arms hated that square beast of a book, but I can forgive him under artistic license.
The thing that sold me in the end though, was that half-way through the book, TS was humanized for me. One minute I was checking my watch to see if it was time for a coffee break, and the next, my heart was overflowing with a desire to protect this brilliant and naive child from the harsh realities of politics and shameful adult behavior. As much as I couldn’t comprehend how to relate to this character on so many levels, at the deepest one – the level of basic humanity – Larsen found a way to make me love this boy.
Reif Larsen has a lovely website with some excellent representations of the kind of art found in this book at: http://reiflarsen.com/ More importantly, he has created a mind-blowing site for this book that you MUST see: http://tsspivet.com/. Seriously. Checking Facebook can wait while you go see this.