Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Love, Stargirl - the sequel to Stargirl, and maybe the better book (Book Review)

Jerry Spinelli
Yes, this blog (and my twitter handle @yuristargirl) is named after the book "Stargirl" which means this review of its sequel "Love, Stargirl" isn't going to be very objective (no review ever is) but also is likely to go off the rails compared to typical reviews. I put off reading this book for a long while, uncertain whether I wanted to disrupt the strange magic the first book left with me. I'm so glad I finally read it. It's probably the better book even without all the critical acclaim of its predecessor.

"Stargirl" by Jerry Spinelli (whose wife's work has a special place in my family's heart) told the story of Leo when a strange, homeschooled girl, named Stargirl, starts attending his school. He's terrified and awestruck by her at the same time. Ultimately they become friends, then a couple, then he cannot fully digest what it means to be good to her, nor can she fully tolerate what she's giving up to be good to him, and the whole thing collapses just as she moves out of town.

"Stargirl" was celebrated for its championing of non-conformity (Stargirl's given name is Susan) through all the "wacky" things she does to bring joy into the world. I'm dating myself, but for fans of the show "Dharma and Greg," she's much like a teenage Dharma.

But it wasn't her non-conformity that made that book resonate with me. In fact, I really felt that Stargirl was written too much like a manic pixie dream girl and not a very authentic teen. However Leo, in his complete and utter failure to be good to her, was a very realistic depiction of the challenges facing young men, the complexity of growing up, the pressures of society, etc...etc... Regardless of the fact that I didn't truly buy into Stargirl as a person, and was really upset by Leo's actions, the book transfixed me, it hit me at a very personal level, a level that I'm sure Jerry Spinelli couldn't have conceived of when he wrote that book.

I bought, but never read its sequel, "Love, Stargirl," because I never wanted to be without her, but was afraid that reading it would break the spell and ruin it for me. However, the opposite was true. "Love, Stargirl" is superior in most every way and especially in its humanization of the person Stargirl.

"Love, Stargirl" takes place one year after the events of the first book as Stargirl (and you'll need to have read it as background information) and her parents have moved to a small town in Pennsylvania. Structurally, this book is from Stargirl's point of view and written in the form of a near-daily letter from Stargirl to Leo, the boy who broke her heart in the prior book. And it is broken, more so than she realizes at the beginning. Hearing every moment of her next year from her point of view, in her words, in her shifting emotions, their evolution, only adds to the heartache.

But by writing this book through her eyes, we see a very different Stargirl than in the first novel. Here is a Stargirl who still takes joy in learning, befriending others, and in seeing and spreading joy. She still meditates daily, but we come to find out that she sometimes struggles with it - and a lot else too. Unlike the first book where we had no real window into her experiences, here she struggles to clear her head of the teenage thoughts, the worries, the doubts, the hurts, the hopes. She isn't this perfect ball of sunshine every moment. She struggles to keep herself level and happy. She becomes a real person to the reader, a real person who was always there in the subtext of the first book.

We see for the first time what is going on inside of her, the same things that must have been there in the first novel when all we were privy to were her exterior actions giving us, and Leo, a false sense of her own stability and seeming simplicity. It is her very realness that Leo couldn't embrace and appreciate, that he couldn't honor and protect, that led to their breakup at the end of the first book, and that is confirmed in this book. Maybe to him, she was only either a manic pixie dream girl or a person he could turn into a "normal" girl (both only cardboard cut-outs not real people), but she was truly more complex than either (as every person is).

"Love, Stargirl" then covers the next year of her life. She goes back to homeschooling, befriends a shut-in, a gregarious 6-year-old, an angry 11-year-old, a developmentally disabled young man, a sad widower, and eventually, a teen boy. She tells her intertwining journeys with them to Leo in these letters she's unsure he'll ever read. She finds new aspects to herself, processes old feelings, comes to knew understandings about them. But she is also faced with the very real fact that she has stopped moving forward, she is not moving past Leo and that time where she went back to being "Susan" for him. What does she want, what does he mean to her?

Where "Love, Stargirl" stumbles is in the details of the writing. Some of the dialogue doesn't feel authentic, the writing of the letters is often far more in-depth and narrative than we would expect in letters written by a teen (more like expository text in a novel). But none of that matters. You aren't reading this for pristine, life altering prose, at least, that's not why I read it nor why this book mattered to me.

As I mentioned earlier, I could care less about its message of promoting non-conformity (not that non-conformity is a bad thing). Instead, I think Stargirl has been a mirror for me. It isn't that I want to be her, exactly, but there is some core to her that is also the core that has been waiting, patiently, inside me my whole life.

As many of you know, I am a trans girl who has recently come out to my wife and daughter and I'm in the process of social transition.  Somehow, Stargirl means something so very much to me in a hard-to-describe, but personal way. I read it and felt at peace, I read it and felt at home. She isn't trans, there isn't any LGBTQ representation, but that isn't why it resonated. Even personality wise, she isn't much like me or what I even want to be.

But, there is something shared there nonetheless, something in the writing itself. I feel something affirming and gentle when I read it. I still don't really have the words for the sensation. But I do know, now, that she is a mirror for me (and so is the atmosphere of the text). That feeling and mirror was what I was looking to protect after reading the first book and why I didn't want to read this second one (although I didn't know it at the time). Thankfully, I'm here to tell you that "Love, Stargirl"only enhances the connection I felt. It cemented it. It took the faint feeling under the surface of the first novel, when we only had Leo's point of view on her, and in her realness from "Love, Stargirl" magnified it infinitely.

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