On the recommendation of the wonderful Charlie, I read Andrea Seigel's Like the Red Panda.
And frankly, I do not know what to make of it.
Reviews online keep referring to the narrator's - Stella - and the author's humor and wit. But I didn't see a lot of this. Some, sure, and enough to make me think of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, which still makes me laugh, even after a dozen or more readings.
But there's almost too much weirdness in Stella's life, and a lot of it feels contrived and unevenly handled. Even the deaths of her parents - from coke cut with heroin - felt somehow odd. And the characters, even the quirkiest ones, felt flat. I have no idea who or what the foster parents, Shana and Simon, are. The ex(?) boyfriend Daniel - confusing. Ashley and Ainsley - irritating and perplexing. The grandfather, Donald - almost unbearable.
Stella's apathy is creepy. Once she makes her decision to kill herself, it becomes apparent that she's never made any effort in any of her interpersonal relationships, with the possible (but only possible) exception of Daniel. Everyone is a stranger to her, and it feels like Stella's fault. And not in a way that makes me feel sympathetic; in other ways, she's a very sharp, astute and self-aware thinker and observer. But she doesn't even seem to realize that she may have been able to change the relationship between herself and her foster parents, or kids at school, or anything. She rigorously over-achieves academically, and wears a collection of (very short) plaid skirts, but otherwise, Stella feels like a cipher. I don't know why she wants to kill herself, not really, except the more-or-less stated reason that she feels like she's peaked; that she's done living. But what this means and how one might know it at age 17 is not clear.
Ultimately, I ended up feeling angry at Stella, primarily on Ainsley's behalf. Poor Ainsley, the invisible girl - finally, she has a friend who seems to value her for herself and not because of her proximity to Ashley, finally someone seems to understand Ainsley - and within weeks, that someone intends to be dead. Likewise Daniel, who - whatever it actually means or consists of - seems to genuinely care about Stella; he'll be waiting at Del Mar for her, while she never shows (and instead, Ainsley will be showing up, an almost-nasty twist that Stella designs).
At the end of this book, I felt most annoyed with Andrea Seigel, a fact that was not helped by a visit to her website. My sense of the book is that Seigel wanted to write a book that would shock! people, not that she had something she wanted to say. There's a quality of hipster self-satisfaction that comes from both the book and Stella, and makes it hard for me to connect with or like either.
Like Jay Asher's catastrophe 13 Reasons Why, this book never made me really feel or understand why Stella wanted to die. Neither she nor Hannah (the suicide of Asher's book) came across as particular suicidal, particularly unhappy or ready to die. Stella instead feels a little bit clueless, a little too into herself. The way she chooses to stage her suicide is particularly telling. She researches the "warning signs," and devises a program of exhibiting them; she writes the entire book as a document to leave behind. She's incredibly interested in being seen, in performing Suicidal Teen Girl Who is Smart And Quirky (witness: plaid catholic schoolgirl skirts).
It's this performance that bothers me, I guess, because it feels like it comes from the author and from Stella. I get the feeling that Seigel is saying "Hey! LOOK AT ME! I WROTE THIS INTENSE, MEANINGFUL BOOK ABOUT SUICIDE WHICH WILL SHOCK YOU! I AM SO DEEP!"
and I feel like Stella is saying the same thing (and the same thing as Holden Caulfield): Look at me, I am so much deeper and intense than all the phonies around me.
While this is very much a part of teenage life (which I know from firsthand experience), it's also a pose, a stage, a performance, a phase.
Seigel doesn't back it up with anything that makes me believe in Stella's pose; I don't think she's particularly deep or insightful (though smart, and certainly more aware than many of her classmates).
Ultimately, I don't buy Stella as a girl who actually wants to kill herself. I don't think she's as interesting as she thinks she is, or as Seigel thinks she (stella and Seigel) is.
All the same, there is something about the book that is appealing, that did draw me in to a degree. I find I feel perplexed, more than anything, by the end of the novel - perplexed, and extremely anxious and sad on behalf of Ainsley. I care what happens to Stella because I care about Ainsley - and I think this is a failing of the book, and not a success.