Sunday, November 11, 2012

Book Review: Cheer

By Jami Deise

I have friends who are voracious readers, but refuse to read any novel in which a child is placed in any kind of jeopardy. Be it a false accusation, a kidnapping, a disease, if something bad is going to happen to a child, they’re not going to read that book. I’m a mother myself, so I can understand, but at the same time, I have always found myself drawn to stories about the worst happening. That’s why I enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction in my “non-chick-lit” pile, and why the “no harm to the child” rule does not apply to me. Survival – physical or emotional -- is a subject that calls to me.

My sensitive friends are not going to want to read Leslie A. Gordon’s novel, Cheer, which deals with the aftermath of the death of a child. And that’s a shame because, while the book is emotionally challenging, it is also a testament to the strength of the human condition. Losing a child is the absolute worst thing that can happen. Yet, people lose children every day, in a variety of ways, all of them tragic. How do they get through it? How do they cope? Cheer is a mostly realistic look at how one family survives.

Two years after the death of toddler Riley, his family’s grief and pain has burrowed down into its very DNA. Ella, a 14-year-old high school freshman and cheerleader, is so tormented by guilt that she’s become a cutter. Ella and Riley’s mother Jenny is so obsessed with having a replacement child (she’s undergoing in vitro fertilization), her online circle of IVF friends, and her own guilt, that she’s neglecting the family she has left. And father Ethan has buried himself in self-help books, searching for ways to pull his family back together and get himself through the worst of it.

The book is divided among the points of view of these three main characters as they try to survive each day without Riley. Ella, who’d been left home alone to watch Riley the day he died, is the most damaged. Always an introvert and a good student, she’s become so withdrawn that she only has one friend, Hope. She forces herself to get As in every class and listen to every rule her parents require. She presses herself harder and harder as a cheerleader (as she calls it, an “ESPN cheerleader,” which is more gymnastics than yelling about touchdowns), and cuts herself in private so that her deep emotional pain has some release.

Jenny, too, has her own guilt. She left Riley with Ella in order to meet with her lover -- Ella’s cheerleading coach, Rick. Even though the meeting was to break off the relationship, her actions – both the affair and leaving Riley – eat away at her. Not surprisingly, with both carrying such a heavy load of guilt, Ella and Jenny’s relationship has suffered mightily. The two can barely look each other in the eye.

While Ethan’s point of view takes up a third of the book, he is the weakest character. Although he suspects Jenny was involved with someone else, he does not press the issue. He sees the great guilt that Ella and Jenny both bear, but he does not blame either of them for his son’s death. He supports Jenny in her IVF endeavors, although the obsession for another child is hers alone.

Reading the book is like walking through quicksand. There is very little plot to speak of, and what there is comes at the end. The characters wallow in their pain, and the reader is right there with them. The biggest mystery is what exactly happened to Riley. Although Ella reveals on page one that “I killed my brother,” she doesn’t spill the details until two-thirds of the way through the book. This delaying tactic gives a false sense of urgency to the plot, as the voyeuristic desire to know what happened keeps the reader turning the page. And when Ella finally does reveal – with excruciating detail that overlaps everyday minutiae with the horror of knowing what’s going to happen – exactly how he died, it leaves the reader in tears.

Gordon does a good job differentiating her characters. She alternates chapters among Ella, Jenny and Ethan in that order, each in first person. Ella and Jenny both have very strong voices that command their pages. Ethan’s is a bit weaker, but since he’s not falling apart as much as the other two, that’s understandable. While occasionally there’d be a similarity in sentence structure among the chapters, overall each voice is its own.

But this is really Ella’s story, even though her parents’ tales are included, and she is the one who finally takes action. It is to Gordon’s credit that Ella’s action is foreseeable without being predictable. Once she takes this action, the story moves very quickly to climax and denouement.

I can’t say I enjoyed Cheer, because it’s not the kind of book you enjoy. It’s the kind of novel you read for catharsis, and it delivered that in spades. I was impressed with Gordon’s obvious talent and ability. I did have a few quibbles with the novel, however. The pacing, while appropriate for a story with this subject matter, was plodding at times. If Gordon had had Ella take action at the midpoint of the novel, she could have spent more time dealing with her actions and their consequences. The title is misleading, although it seems that Gordon is using Ella’s excellence and perseverance at cheerleading as a metaphor for emotional pain and resiliency. And I didn’t like the ending for several reasons. I thought that Gordon took the easy way out by the way Ella’s actions were resolved, and by how she and her parents reacted afterward. There was a lot of emotional build-up through the novel, and things seemed to come together too quickly in the end. And the book itself doesn’t end, it just stops abruptly. That tactic has always been one of my personal pet peeves as a reader. End the book, don’t just stop it. The reader doesn’t want to fill in the blanks or come up with her own ending. That’s the writer’s job.

Cheer is not the type of novel we ordinarily review here. It doesn’t provide a quick laugh – or any laughs, really – or a love story. This book is an up-close-and-personal look at the type of pain we all pray every day we’ll never need to face. But it’s a strong, well-written story with characters who deserve to be heard.

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1 comment:

Preet said...

Thank you for this moving review. I find stories such as this extremely touching, however I don't fear them or avoid them myself. I want to be moved when I read a book, irregardless of what genre it belongs to.It doesn't have to bring me to tears, but I want to be able to connect with the characters emotionally.