“Are you ok?” … “How’s the pain?” … “How’re you doing?”
Edward is unable to answer any of these questions. He can’t consider how he’s feeling; that door is far too dangerous to open. He tries to stay away from thoughts and emotions, as if they’re furniture he can skirt past in a room.
Going into a book bracing for overwhelming tragedy is always hard. Contemporary, realistic grave tragedy must be difficult to write, and is certainly difficult to read.
That is exactly what you have to do when you crack the spine on Dear Edward, which follows a young boy after he becomes the sole survivor of a terrible plane crash.
I have to confess that I set an extra challenge for myself on this one, in packing Anne Napolitano’s Dear Edward as my “in flight entertainment” for a nonstop cross-country flight. I couldn’t help but pause between pages to scan the passengers of my flight, finding the young families, the yuppie businessmen, the bright-eyed hopeful women, the soldiers traveling in uniform, and of course the flight attendants. It’s hard not to picture, particularly in bouts of turbulence, how quickly a scenario you’ve only read about can become your reality.
It did not make for a good flight.
I was aided in large part by Napolitano herself, who seemed absolutely determined to fill her pages with unlikable characters which kept me from getting too invested in the story. Maybe she anticipated they might make it easier to keep reading, knowing it was these characters approaching their doom with each passing page.
An uncharitable reader (like myself during rougher skies) might wonder instead whether Napolitano had simply never met a good person. Because it’s undeniable that she’s a more than competent writer. Did she choose to write dislikable characters, or are those characters an accurate reflection of what the author knows and thinks of the limited range of human thought and emotion? Or perhaps I’m alone in finding the vast majority of her characters really strikingly unpleasant – that’s absolutely possible.
To give you a glimpse into just how much I struggled with these characters, though, let me just quote for you now from my own notes straight from the margins on page 9: “Napolitano is coming across as a very sad, repressed, unfulfilled person – or as someone so full of her own specialness she thinks this is how everyone else is.”
Or from page 18: “It’s like Napolitano hasn’t ever had any life experiences, only read about them.”
Or from page 63: “It all reads like she’s guessing at what people are like.”
Safe enough to say that I struggled.
But if you can put aside her characters, her writing isn’t at all bad. Sometimes her prose feels immature. For example:
Now they are looking for the black box. The woman who leads the team, a sixty-year-old legend in the field known simply as Donovan, is certain that they will find it.
This kind of passivity reads less like passive voice used for effect and more like a paragraph the editor must’ve missed. And the book is sprinkled liberally with it.
In other spots, though, she does nail a scene, or an evocation. More than once I highlighted a passage and just wrote “Heartwrenching” – because it was. To my count, she got it right about half as often as she got it wrong. But that doesn’t mean those beautiful moments aren’t there. They are.
And there’s the overall structure and pacing of the book, both of which are absolute home-runs. They alone make this book worthwhile, to experience the events and emotions turn by turn as we revolve constantly from Edward’s POV, to the flight investigator’s, to an almost real-time view of the flight itself.
With the structure she chose and the tension it builds, it’s almost as though she only ever gives you time to catch your breath while you’re reading the flight itself. The effect it creates is masterful.
Finally, it must be said that the relationship between the two brothers is clearly lovingly rendered, and I cherish some of the moments she gave them together. They will stick with me, and it’s clear that she put a lot of her heart, and her affection for her own boys, in these two characters, and the book shines for it.