Monday, August 9, 2010
Author: Maggie Stiefvater
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Sam, the male lead of Shiver, is an amateur musician. At certain points in the book he tries to get a handle on what he's feeling at the time by composing song lyrics in his head. Perhaps appropriately, when the back cover of this book finally closed, I had a few bars of Tom Petty running through my own head: "The waiting is the hardest part...". Shiver is a book of heartwarming, tear-jerking highs, and tedious, contrived lows, with most of the highs clustered near the end. While the highs are worth it, this is not a book for the easily annoyed.
The viewpoint switches back and forth between Sam and his romantic partner, Grace. Grace is the ordinary high school student typical of YA literature. At age eleven, she was attacked by a pack of hungry werewolves. One of them, having an attack of humanity, stopped the bloodshed and dragged her to safety. That wolf was Sam, and ever since that day she's seen him from her backyard every so often, watching over her silently. They've grown to be rather affectionate toward each other, though Grace has no idea what the truth is about him. Then, six years after the attack, she meets him in human form, and they quickly fall in love.
The timing on that turns out to be pretty awful. Stiefvater's conception of lycanthropy is temperature-triggered. The werewolves can't control their changes- during the cold Minnesota winter, they become wolves and lose a portion of their human memories and emotions. When spring comes, the warmth makes them human again. But each successive year, they change back later and later, until one year they simply don't. Last year, Sam didn't become human until June. The next time he goes wolf, he's not coming back.
Here's the first and most serious problem with Shiver: There is no reason these two people should fall in love except that the story demands it. Grace meets Human-Sam one day following a brush with death on his part, and by nightfall he's sharing her bed- chastely, more or less. As soon as the next day, they're acting like they've known each other for years. We're supposed to buy that they've bonded over the six years of watching each other from a distance. But this doesn't ring true when they haven't even had a conversation in that time.
Actually, a lot of the book is deficient in the area of setup. And follow-through, for that matter. Several plot twists seem to be made up on the spot, and several things that look like they're going to be picked up later aren't. Grace's mother paints a portrait of Sam at one point, and you expect it to show up at some significant moment, but it never does. A rich man who loses a son to a wolf mauling holds an illegal wolf hunt for revenge, causing Sam's aforementioned brush with death. The son becomes a troubled werewolf and Sam has a subplot about dealing with him. But the hunt is never brought up again- no second attempt, no apparent legal repercussions. Don't even get me started on Beck's little souvenirs from Canada.
To a point, this is acceptable writing form. Everything should tie into the main plot and the overarching themes. Nothing should be wasted. The problem is that Shiver does it without subtlety. It's like watching a horror movie, and seeing the zipper on the back of the monster costume. You can't immerse yourself in the story when the story shoves it's own artificiality in your face.
(Footnote: I am well aware that Shiver is the first of a trilogy, and some of these hanging threads may be picked up in later books. This does not mollify me because a book- even one out of a series- should be complete in itself. Certainly the main plot of Shiver is complete- there's no cliffhanger ending, no sequel hook. Yet these little things keep popping up, declaring their importance, and then vanishing into the void between words.)
For all that, though, Shiver does keep the pages turning. The relationship being chronicled here is by turns sweet and melancholy, and the writer knows how to move her audience. Sam knows that he and Grace have no future, and Grace knows it too, deep down. But they have a now that is poignant, desperate, and touching. Watching them just be together, as boyfriend and girlfriend, is almost enough to overlook the fact that their relationship is made up out of whole cloth.
On the other other hand... Anything that can be done, can be overdone. And indeed, almost half the book is scenes of Grace and Sam acting lovey-dovey and trying to keep Sam warm. Meanwhile subplots happen all around them, the winter that will separate them forever keeps closing in, and they don't seem to want to do anything about it. Again, there's nothing explicitly wrong with this- denial is a very common trait in young lovers- but it has a negative effect on the narrative. Chapter after chapter of playful kisses and secret doubts wears thin quick.
About halfway through, things finally pick up- bad stuff starts happening, and the main plot gets moving. There are kidnappings, revelations, close calls, and our heroes finally snap out of their romantic daze long enough to try and do something about the whole lycanthropy thing. The story becomes a good deal more interesting while not losing it's essential emotional heart. There is triumph, tragedy, desperate gambles, and fatal mistakes. And after the dust has settled comes the ending. Here Stiefvater truly shines, wringing everything for maximum emotion up until the very last page.
So... all things considered, is Shiver worth reading?
Well, let's see... Drag out the Antique Scales of Judgement, used in both ancient times and Sesame Street's Metropolitan Museum of Art special to judge the rightness of things. Onto one pan go the heart, the soul, the emotion, the agony and the ecstasy. Also, I guess, the supporting cast- generally well-crafted, though utilitarian- the romantic bits that work, the consistent rules of lycanthropy, and the smooth pace of the second half. Onto the other go the absurd setup, the romantic bits that don't work, the many little "whatever happened to...?" moments, and the tedious and repetitive middle. When the blocks are removed, does the scale tip in favor of the good?
Yes, it does. Mind you, it's a bit wobbly. If you're looking for great literature, this isn't it. If you can't tolerate the flaws thus far enumerated, then put it back on the shelf. But the book passes muster. It aims to tug at the heartstrings, and it does so quite effectively. Still, let's hope the author can craft a tighter and more solid story for the sequel.