August 10, 2013

Kate Spofford: "The Art Kids"

Title: The Art Kids [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None (but there is a companion novel, featuring some of the secondary characters in TAK and titled after one of them: Bethany Caleb. Look for it: on Amazon | on Goodreads)
Author: Kate Spofford [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Contemporary With a Twist
Year: 2013
Age: 12+
Stars: 3/5
Pros: Heartfelt and genuine. Refreshing, because of the art-related setting. Faces crucial themes without wallowing in angst.
Cons: The main secret doesn't hold for long - though this won't probably detract from your reading pleasure. Large amount of (often idle) details in the first chapters. A few annoying attitudes. A few mistakes slipped through revision. 
WARNING! Some characters deal with depression and self-harm; others do drugs or get drunk.
Will appeal to: Those who are into visual arts (especially painting). Those who have an introspective streak. Those who know what a close friend is. Those who feel inadequate. Those who don't quite fit in.

Blurb: Sophie thought her senior year was going to be the best. That was before the new girl Laney arrives in her art class. Now, instead of good times hanging with her friends, everyone is acting strangely. Paul is angry all the time, Kevin and Jenna aren’t quite the perfect couple anymore, and everyone is ignoring Evan. Sophie knows there's something different about the new girl. Something that seems to be tearing her group of friends apart. When Evan starts dating Laney, it looks like the end of the Art Kids… but maybe Sophie isn’t seeing the whole picture. (Amazon)

Review: First off...DISCLAIMER: I received this novel via the Making Connections YA Edition group on Goodreads (ARR # 303 - I think there are still copies left currently, if you are interested) in exchange for an honest review. Also, the author is on my Goodreads friend list (due to our sharing an interest in a certain writer's work), but this didn't influence my review in any way.
It's difficult to review this book without giving away something massive. I have probably spoiled it enough already just by using the "Contemporary With a Twist" label. On the other hand, while I'll admit that I was able to uncover the big secret pretty early in the story, this didn't deprive me of my reading pleasure...I'd go as far as saying that it was someway enhanced, because I was able to get deeper into the story, knowing what I knew. Anyway, I only got part of the secret right. I will entertain you with my original assumption at the end of this review (and don't worry, the big spoiler button will prevent you from accidentally stumbling into it, though I won't even address the differences between my original theory and the ultimate truth...).
First off, TAK is split into four parts (plus an Epilogue) with catching titles: Abstract Idea, Mixed Media, Still Life and Self-Portrait. They serve the purpose of describing four different art assignments the class is given through the year, but on a deeper level, they also give us powerful clues about the main character's state of mind and predicament. The book is probably set in the late 90s, because neither cell phones nor PCs are mentioned (or to be more precise, PCs are at one point, but they're also dismissed as "unnecessary" by a parent). Another reason why I date this book to be from the second half or said decade is something that happens toward the end...and that I can't mention because of my no-spoiler policy. Anyway, I didn't even noticed the technology issue at first, because TAK deals with timeless problems and struggles teenagers have to face, regardless of the time frame.
The Art Kids (or Art Freaks, as they are mercilessly called by the popular clique) are a group of high school friends who take part in the Art Club as an extracurricular activity. We follow Sophie (the narrator), Evan, Roger, Paul, Kevin, Jenna and Jeff, plus a few of their classmates, during a whole school year (with some flashbacks thrown in the middle). Also, in the very first page, we are introduced to a character whom Sophie calls "the new girl" (only later we are to discover that her name is Laney)...I can't really say much about her, because it would spoil the novel big - anyway, it's clear from the start that Laney and Sophie share a history of depression and self-harm. Spofford does a good job in not revealing the reasons behind Sophie's state of mind and self-destructive streak early in the novel - reasons that actually date way back, well before the "incident" that will be revealed in the last pages. [...]

I liked how romantic relationships aren't the main focus of this novel, while there's much more stress on friendships - especially the one between Sophie and Evan. On the other hand, even close friends can be blind to each other's predicaments and inner turmoils, either because they are too engrossed in their own, or because they don't feel like dealing with such tough stuff...which is very realistic, if not comforting. I also liked how art plays a big role in the book, to the point it is discussed and explained in details without ever getting boring or redundant.
On the other hand, some things slightly annoyed me. 1) The introductory chapters are somewhat weighed down by a lot of (often idle) details. Most of the story goes back and forth between the classrooms and a series of parties, which probably is the easiest way for us to get to know the kids - still I would have liked to see more of them in different settings and situations, because the parties get a bit old after a while. 2) Sophie tends to be judgmental, to the point she sometimes comes across as unnecessarily harsh...for example, she uses the expression "white trash" twice, and her targets aren't even the most popular - and meanest - girls. Again, this may be realistic, but it didn't do a great job in making me feel closer to her. It's true that Sophie does admit her faults to herself...but a few pages later she's using the "white trash" label again. 3) There are some inconsistencies along the way, or better, things that are mentioned and then dropped off, like the outcome of the supposed bomb threat or the result of the Prom Queen and King ballot; also, I spotted a few mistakes and typos that escaped revision, though, honestly, they never managed to pull me out of the story or to interfere with my reading pleasure. 4) (...this is partly a spoiler, so click on the below button at your own risk...)

On the whole, TAK was a satisfying experience and a book I will certainly reread, what with the final denouement not being the main purpose of the journey. I had to point out its flaws out of honesty, but as with all my 3 star books, it still definitely weighs toward the positive. And I suspect readers younger than me might be able to overlook my No.2 and 3 pet peeves against it :). 

For more Contemporary/Contemporary with a Twist books click here.

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