Guest Review by Diane Shipley.
If you weren’t a novel about a girl spending the summer in New York, I’m afraid you held little interest for me in the allegedly hottest months of this year. I may have been shivering in not-so-sunny South Yorkshire, but at least I could vicariously explore the five boroughs thanks to books like Jessie ♥ NYC, Summer and the City, and Adriana Trigiani’s Viola in the Spotlight.
This sequel to Viola in Reel Life sees our title character move back to her home town of Brooklyn for the summer after a year at boarding school in South Bend, Indiana. She’s looking forward to reconnecting with her two best friends, Caitlin and Andrew, but Andrew announces his parents are making him go to camp for most of the summer, and Caitlin gets so caught up in her first (forbidden) romance that she barely speaks to Viola anymore.
Viola is looking for something to occupy her time, so her funky grandma, Grand, who is in rehearsals for a Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace, sets Viola up with an internship in the theatre’s lighting department. Viola also agrees to walk Grand’s dog every day, and makes plans for her friends from school to visit her at the end of summer and attend the play’s opening night. She does some filming with Andrew before he goes to camp, including a fun-sounding day out at Coney Island. And… that’s about it.
I kept waiting for the action to take off, but it never did. Things happened to the supporting characters, and Viola told us about them, but none of it affected her directly. Even when I thought it might — when she was asked to keep a secret for one of her friends that kept inconveniencing Viola — she never became angry at being taken for granted, or jealous at having so little happening in her own life.
Every plot needs some dramatic tension: something the main character wants that we’re not sure she’s going to get. But all that happened here was a series of vaguely connected events with no real narrative. There is some action right at the very end of the book which sets up the next one in the series, and it would have made a great source of inner conflict for Viola if it had been introduced much earlier. Instead, it’s a wasted opportunity.
Adriana Trigiani describes New York wonderfully, and the scenes at Coney Island really came alive. I would have loved to have read more about the Brooklyn and Manhattan only NYC residents know, as she clearly could have described much more. She could also have written more about Viola’s life as an intern, in a “The Devil Wears Denim Dungarees” exposé kind of way. At one point, Viola reflects on the “crazy” errands that her internship boss has sent her out on… but she doesn’t specify what those might have been. Ironically for a book called Viola in the Spotlight, in fact, Viola barely features.
Arsenic and Old Lace, on the other hand, is featured to the point of boredom. Trigiani has Viola tell us the same thing in so many different ways (that it’s a play about two old ladies who poison people; that Grand plays an old lady… who poisons people, etc) that I wondered if she suspected her readers of having comprehension problems. Yet when it came to lighting design terminology, she casually dropped terms only a theatre professional would have heard before, with no explanation. I have a theory that somewhere on Adriana Trigiani’s hard drive there’s twenty thousand words or so that gave Viola a storyline, which were viciously culled due to space restrictions, and that’s why the book never really gels.
I’ve read a few of Trigiani’s novels for adults (it’s OK! I’m over 18) and I also wonder if she’s so used to writing for that readership that her voice for teens isn’t well-formed. She takes pains to make Viola’s parents and grandparents seem cool, but they’re far too central to the story. It’s not half as much fun reading about a girl and her friends in the coolest city in the world when moralising oldsters — however trendy and understanding — keep popping up. I also thought Viola and her friends seemed naïve for 15, especially considering they grew up in New York.
Finally, I realise this isn’t the place for a feminist diatribe (or is it…? *hopeful expression*), but it wound me up how often Viola had one conversation or encounter with a member of the opposite sex and then surmised that “boys are like X”, or “all boys think like Y”. Major gender differences are more likely to be due to cultural expectations than biology, so I don’t think it’s a great idea to use YA to reinforce sexist stereotypes.
The good thing about Viola in the Spotlight is that it made me realise that there’s room on the shelves for an engaging and entertaining story about a native New York teen’s summer back in Brooklyn. But sadly, this isn’t it.
Guest Review by Diane Shipley.
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Childrens Books (31 Mar 2011)
- ISBN-10: 0857070207
- ISBN-13: 978-0857070203