There is a certain skill that very few authors can wield with such clarity of purpose. It’s the ability to strip a story down to its simplest, purest elements, to leave behind the flowery prose and the impressive vocabulary and, with the sparsest language, tell the most powerful story.
Laurie Halse Anderson has that skill and she flaunts it quite well in her 1999 novel, Speak.
I’m not saying that I think this book is simple in any way. It’s quite complex, actually, and the themes that Anderson captures are so resounding for anyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender.
Yes, the story focuses on one traumatic event survived by the novel’s heroine, Melinda Sordino, and her journey back from the nadir of that moment to when she finally reclaims her voice. But it’s also the story of depression (not emo teen angst, but honest depression), not fitting in, not belonging, not being understood, not being heard because you don’t know how to be.
What teenager doesn’t understand these feelings? Hell, what adult doesn’t understand these feelings? I’m nearly 34 years old and I still feel as though some days I’m struggling to find my voice.
Anderson does an exemplary job of capturing all these emotions and moments, not in any overly sentimental or schlocky ways, and of creating one of the most extraordinarily human characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I can honestly say, with all the books I have read and all the wonderful characters I have met throughout my literary perambulations, Melinda Sordino has earned her place as one of the few characters I didn’t want to leave. She was this beautiful, breathtaking combination of fractured and fierce, funny and heart-breaking. Very rarely do I wish that a book character was real, but such was the case with Melinda.
Perhaps that’s partially why I love the movie with equal fervor and why I’m also going to praise what I think is one of the finest book-to-film adaptations I’ve ever seen.
I’ve actually already talked a little bit about the movie version of Speak. It came in the form of what could be construed as a back-handed compliment to Kristen Stewart while unleashing my vitriol on Stephenie Meyer and the scourge of inanity she’s unleashed with her bullshit sparkly vampire stories.
[Loba Tangent 1: That reminds me. Another thing I spent considerable time doing at the beach this past weekend was flipping around all the copies of Meyer’s latest abomination so that no one could recognize it. I also flipped around a couple of displays so that people couldn’t see them either. Hell hath no fury like an offended literary snob.]
In my rant/review on Twilight, I mentioned how taken aback I’d been after seeing Stewart’s performance as Melinda Sordino. For that brief period of time, Melinda existed in such a believable, genuine way, gaining life through one of Stewart’s more inspired performances thus far.
[Loba Tangent 2: In his review of Adventureland, another of my recent favorite movie acquisitions, Roger Ebert wrote,
What surprised me was how much I admired Kristen Stewart, who in Twilight, was playing below her grade level. Here is an actress ready to do important things.
I can’t agree more with Ebert, and I can’t wait until she can finally put behind her these insipid Twilight movies and move on to do the important things I believe await her.]
Again, I have no children. But if I did, regardless of whether they were girls or boys, I’d give them this book to read and/or the movie to watch (although I think the movie sharpens the focus of the story, whereas the book is a little more inclusive of all outsiders). Anderson has done something so amazing with this novel: She has captured an astonishing array of overarching issues that affect so many teenagers, and brought them together in this perfectly crafted tale.
Final Verdict: Melinda Sordino will be staying in my collection, thank you. Although I don’t think I will be reading any further into Anderson’s oeuvre. I know this is going to sound strange, especially coming from as big a book geek as me, but this book resonated so strongly with me, not only for the complex simplicity (oh, yes, indeed) of the story, but for the absolutely beautiful way in which it was told…I can’t imagine Anderson ever topping the power of this novel.
What’s more, I don’t want her to. I want Melinda to remain the solitary spectacular gift that Anderson has given to my library. I know that sounds bizarre, but that’s the way I feel, at least right now. I’ll let you know if I change my mind.