Fiction offers readers a variety of experience disparate as Mother Nature’s seasons: some stories bring light and laughter while others chill the bones; some stories ooze options while others channel death. Story lines cannot be easily categorized according to months of the year, considering each geographic location has its own annual experience. However, basic seasonal changes do occur around the globe.
Late summer into Fall, leaves begin to change color, wither and die. Winds scatter them among brittle grasses, flowers and weeds. Days shorten. Avid readers begin to spend more and more time inside, cozied up to a good read. Why not read a story consistent with what is happening outdoors?
These four young adult reads reflect themes of late summer into fall; all are well-written and thoughtful stories.
‘Frannie in Pieces’
Death comes to all of us, but certainly we do not expect to experience the loss of a beloved father during our high school years. Sadly, it happens. Only a brave and sensitive writer is able to flesh out such an event and retain readers. Delia Ephron is such an author.
“Frannie in Pieces” refers not only to the shattered life of 15-year-old Frannie, who finds her father dead inside his bathroom. “In Pieces” also refers to the 1000 piece puzzle Frannie puts together as she struggles to manage unresolved issues.
For example, fear of white powdery substances similar to those noted on the cheeks of her dead father and never explained away result in her obsession with poisons:
- “Do you know what it says on a tube of toothpaste? In small print? You have to read the small print because they never tell you anything scary in large print. Large print is what they want you to see. Here’s what the large print says: ‘For best results, squeeze tube from the bottom and flatten as you go up.’ But the important stuff is small. Tiny. ‘If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away.’… You can die from toothpaste.”
- This obsession nearly costs her summer job as day camp Arts and Crafts Director. She inspires her campers to research “poison”; she has them create posters and projects on the subject that leave them sleepless and their parents furious.
This response, though perhaps edgy, makes sense considering she will not let anyone in and self-obsessed friends are clueless to help her deal. Lack of support sends her into a dissociative experience inspired when she discovers a hand-carved box and puzzle pieces meticulously created by her dead father.
While this flight into the puzzle world comes off as magical realism, such disorders can be very real and are often triggered by trauma and loss. This mental health issue occurs when one’s perception of reality becomes skewed.
Ephron’s description of this disorder is painfully well-written. Though many teens label it weird or strange, Ephron’s treatment of this mental health issue as well as her ability to define the parameters of despair connected to the loss of a parent is quite brilliant.
‘Fin and Lady’
Eleven-year-old Fin has unexpectedly lost his single mother and comes under the guardianship of a flighty, estranged twenty-something sister named Lady. He moves abruptly from a stable farm environment into the middle of chaotic Greenwich Village, where Lady’s peers are transitioning from more traditional roles of World War 2 parents into the free love, radical energy of the 1960s and 70s.
Schine layers these issues scene upon scene, even as she reveals the deepening relationship between Fin and Lady: their brief honeymoon; role reversals; personal growth.
There is a shallowness to Lady’s character that Fin cannot overlook, though he and everyone she meets cannot help adore her beauty and enthusiastic embrace of all things new and controversial and anti-establishment.
She is an endearing personality similar to Gatsby’s Daisy, while Fin plays Nick Carraway, confident for Lady’s troubled suitors. As with Daisy, Lady’s tale ends badly.
The effects of Lady on Fin shape and define the story, but the narrator remains a mystery until the last few chapters. Whether this technique enhances the story or inhibits its full development are up for debate; the unusual nature of this approach lends an air of mystery to this literary piece of fiction.
‘The Probability of Miracles’
The most emotional tale on the list, “The Probability of Miracles” pulls readers into the heart and soul of main character Campbell Cooper, a young woman fighting a losing battle with cancer.
Wunderkind author Wendy Wunder lays down a very real protagonist; tissues are required to survive Cam’s direct and heart-wrenching assessment of arrested development.
This is a quirky, wistful debut novel that follows Cam, her mother and sister north from their commercial homeland, Disney World to Promise, Maine, where bigger dreams are said to come true– maybe even miracles. And Cam needs a miracle.
What is most miraculous about this novel is Wunder’s ability to shape hope from despair, to beam light upon darkness. It’s a play on magical realism that teases and taunts; a roller coaster ride more terrifying than Disney’s Tower of Terror. A read not for the faint of heart, because it is so very, very real.
Each character in “The Probability of Miracles” has a fully developed back story; their depth of sadness, enthusiasm, personal challenges and empathy are evident immediately upon introduction. A fact that becomes more significant upon discovery that Wunder herself is a yoga instructor, well-practiced in going within and in helping others get there.
My favorite scene comes at the end of the novel, when Cam’s friend shares her bucket list. Ocean spray and dolphins co-mingled with optimism generate an unforgettable moment.
‘The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight’
The likelihood of two novels containing the mathematical concept “probability” within their titles generates an unknown ratio worthy of a Ph.D. dissertation. The chance that both novels will be well-written and included within an analysis of four excellent late summer and fall reads is pretty darn random.
Yet, here we are.
Jennifer E. Smith’s fast and fun read runs about the same length as Wendy Wunder’s “The Probability of Miracles”. Where Wunder’s novel requires Kleenex, Smith’s imaginative impulses inspire grins.
Who has not imagined meeting one’s true love at the airport? It’s a gathering place where first hellos and final goodbyes occur each and every day: grandparents meet newborn grandchildren; servicemen and women head overseas and do not return; the person seated in 2A is flying to Arizona for a holistic cancer cure; the couple in 17 A and B are on their honeymoon.
The airport is a melting pot of humanity. What better setting for a story about young love, the demise of old love, loss and courage?
Protagonist Hadley Sullivan consciously or unconsciously sabotages her trip to London. She doesn’t want to attend her father’s second wedding; he broke her heart as well as her mom’s.
Chagrined at her callousness, Hadley reevaluates and books a later flight, setting the scene for a chance meeting with “her true love”. (One might wonder why Oliver is attentive; she obsesses and doesn’t discover why he is on the flight to London until it is almost too late. But that’s a set up.)
The story is not mindless. Smith juxtaposes devastating family betrayal with “betrayal-lite”, though neither heartbreak is fully realized. She packages it with a satin, silver bow as if in denial. But her easy breezy writing style encourages characters to, quoting Monty Python, “always look on the bright side of life”.