walker's Reviews > Suite Scarlett

Suite Scarlett by Maureen Johnson
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Aug 09, 11

Read on July 25, 2011

A novel doesn't have to be perfect to make me think, and a hypothetical perfect novel might not even help me express myself the same way that this book did. So I guess what that might mean is that sometimes "good" is better than "perfect", and Maureen Johnson, don't take the three stars personally. They mean "good".

Part of what I enjoyed about my reading of Suite Scarlett is that it explored multiple traditions in modern literature. It might be marketed as a "girl book", and it probably is one, but it's other kinds of book too, and Johnson is skilled enough to not let its own marketing category define it.

I've read a lot of YA book bloggers opinions--many of them seem to think that genre doesn't imply style, i.e. YA literature is exactly like adult literature and that there are no meaningful distinctions between them besides the intended age range. I think that this is kind of silly, and misses the point. YA doesn't exist in a vacuum. Traditions in literature drive genres apart, no matter how non-different they originated, and there's nothing you can do about it. But this is a good thing! It doesn't mean that YA is inferior because its style is different--it only means that it's unique. This book does an excellent job in celebrating the uniqueness of the YA genre.

One of the defining elements of YA for me is the way that characters develop. It is not hard to imagine that in general, growing people will relate better to characters that are growing too. I feel like the growing/not growing dichotomy is the most important and most obvious way that YA authors show contrast between characters in their books. The question here is how does Scarlett's growth contrast against that of the characters that frame her, and does Johnson succeed in making this interesting, and the answer is yes.

So when I read Suite Scarlett, the whole time I'm working on figuring out why she's reacting the way to the change in her situation, and how this particular change is different because it's a "girl book" rather than if it wasn't. But where Maureen Johnson succeeded in terms of form, for me, was that the pieces of literary language that make it a "girl book" were really only taking place in the scenery. Rather than being the defining elements of Scarlett's growth as a character, most of the stereotypical content simply served as Scarlett's reward. So what I'm saying is that Scarlett's situation, and her successes and failures, and even her desires and relationships with others were something that any reader could relate to, and that's why I'm still suggesting that you read it, even if you're a boy.

Another aspect of Scarlett that resonated with me was its parallel development of internal conflicts against different types of chaos. As Scarlett's story begins she is in a typical place for a novel's protagonist: she is meeting the status quo but is still slightly disappointed with herself. Then, chaos is thrust upon her, and she panics and flounders around. But eventually, she embraces the constructive aspects of that chaos, overcomes the negative aspects, and by doing so surpasses the original source of the chaos and finds herself its master, or at least its equal.
There are at least three different plot-lines in Scarlett that the previous statement could be describing, and the way that they develop in parallel, interwoven with each other, intensifies the importance of every event that makes them up. Honestly this is the most incredible and intriguing aspect of the novel for me--despite any other feelings I have, it shows that Johnson definitely has some chops.

Whether Johnson intended to make some kind of Taoist point about the reconciliation of opposite types of energy--if you interpret Scarlett at the beginning of the novel as anti-chaotic, rather than neutral--or if she intended to merely make a statement about chaos alone, is difficult to say. I definitely look forward to reading Johnson's other novels (particularly the sequel to this one) in order to further explore her imagination concerning this type of conflict.

So, that's the good. As unlikely as it seems that she intended her novel to reinforce my positive feelings for eastern philosophy, they say you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

The less good is that I don't prefer the prose. But I'm using the word "prefer" there for a reason. I readily admit to being a complete snob about prose. Although by all means they do not dominate my reading habits, I seriously enjoy reading books that require extra effort just for me to parse the words into thoughts.

Maureen Johnson's prose in Suite Scarlett is extremely average. It doesn't cause me any distress or unwanted distraction but I don't feel like it's really an active part of the novel. I feel like it's the goal of some authors to make the prose as transparent as possible, so that you don't even notice it and the ideas just kind of appear fully formed in your imagination, like you're watching a movie, which can be good, but unfortunately it isn't the style I prefer. Instead, I feel like prose is a wonderful tool that the author could be using to make their work more interesting and multifaceted, but in this case it's just kind of lying there, neglected. But others disagree with me, and I'll readily admit that this is personal preference, albeit a preference I feel strongly about.

Ironically, the aspect of the book from which it gets its title is also the one that I remain the most indifferent towards: the setting. Scarlett takes care of a suite, in a hotel, in New York City. New York is barely explored by the plot, and was rarely used for imagery and mood--it seems to me that the only reason New York was chosen was because the plot required a city with an active theater scene. The hotel serves as a perfect excuse for much of the previously mentioned chaos introduced by the primary chaos-introducer, but the plot itself didn't require that Scarlett live there, just work there, with the possible exception of the payoff of Scarlett's development at the very end of the story.

On the other hand, having it set in a hotel was fun, and provided an excuse for many of the characters' attributes. Unlike the city as a whole, the hotel flavored the atmosphere pretty effectively. The problem might be that when someone brings up old New York hotels, the first thought that pops into my head isn't "how interesting!", but even still, I would have liked to hear more details in the description of Scarlett's particular suite. So while the setting added some flavor and color to the characters and plot, I wish it had been fleshed out a little bit more.

That pretty much wraps it up--despite anything I said to the contrary, I really enjoyed the read. I mean look at all these thoughts that this book caused me to think! Isn't that just as interesting as a book that was actually about those things? Even if Maureen Johnson's intent was simply to make me think about hotels and cute boys, she did a lot more than that. Her writing is fun, inspiring, and refreshing, therefore:

I recommend this book for anyone who loves giraffes who love giraffes.
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