Sunday, July 17, 2011
Inconvenient by Margie Gelbwasser
In fifteen-year-old Alyssa Bondar's Russian-Jewish culture, having a few drinks is as traditional as blinchiki and piroshki. So when her mom's midday cocktails turn into an all-day happy hour, it seems like Alyssa's the only one who notices—or cares. Her dad is steeped in the nightly news—and denial—and her best friend Lana is too busy trashing their shared Russian heritage so she can be popular.
Alyssa would rather focus on cross-country meets and her first kiss with her running partner, Keith, but someone has to clean up her mom's mess. But who will be there to catch Alyssa when her mom's next fall off the wagon threatens to drag her down, too? (courtesy of Goodreads)
Inconvenient is a painfully real book about parental alcoholism, immigrant life, and just growing up. Alyssa is the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. She is proud of her heritage, but hates being subjected to Russian stereotypes by the kids at school. Soon, schoolyard teasing is the least of her concerns as her mother slowly falls under the throes of alcoholism. Her mother's disease destroys the entire family. Alyssa now has to worry about getting to school, her mother's vast mood swings, her father's denial, whether her mother will be drunk in public and embarrass her, whether people will find out, and more. At the same time, Alyssa still tries to live a normal teenage life: first boyfriend, cross-country, friends.
YA (and literature generally) often takings things to extremes. Your love interest is perfectly attuned to your wants and needs. If you have a friend who leaves you for the popular group, she suddenly becomes evil and will stop at nothing to make your life miserable. Inconvenient doesn't limit itself to black and white. This is jarring at first. When Alyssa's boyfriend seemed more interested in making out than delving into her psyche, part of me wondered what was wrong with him. Why wasn't he more sensitive? Then I remembered...he isn't Edward...he is a teenage boy. Similarly, Alyssa's best friend Lana desperately wants to be part of the popular group. I kept waiting for her to do something horrible to Alyssa to show the break in the relationship, like broadcast embarrassing videos in front of the whole school. But it didn't come. I love how the author made the characters seem like real teenagers. Just when you expect them to act one way, they don't. Keith shows surprising sensitivity. Lana does do something mean (unintentionally) to Alyssa. The characters are neither good nor evil. They feel like normal people. It's nice to know that good, interesting books can be written without resorting to extremes.
Similarly, I really liked how the author didn't insist upon a completely resolved story. Alcoholism has no easy solutions and neither does this book. Everything doesn't end "happy, happy." The book and characters grow as the plot goes on, but never in ways that seem unrealistic. Alyssa makes some bad choices, but nothing really bad. One particular thing she did at the very end of the book really bothered me, almost to the point of ruining the ending for me. But I understood why she did it. It's interesting how choices you personally disagree with can have such a big effect on one's opinion of a book.
As someone who is fascinated by Russian culture, I was hoping to get big dose of Russian life in Inconvenient. Alyssa's Russian heritage is always present in the book, from the food she eats, to her religion, to her language, to her family. It wasn't quite enough culture for me - I would have been happy with a book that required a glossary and delved into every facet of Russian immigrant life. But really, Inconvenient got it right. The book I wanted would have no story to it. Inconvenient managed to infuse Russian culture into the story without dragging the plot down. The focus of the book was, as it should be, on the story. The Russian Jewish aspect was a strong supporting character, but didn't upstage the main players.
I highly recommend Inconvenient for someone who is looking for realistic fiction that actually manages to be realistic. A tale of a normal teenager's life. A story without a perfect ending. Likeable characters who are neither perfect nor evil.
Rating: 4 / 5