Summer and Bird by Katherine Catmull

summer and bird

Standalone, Dutton Children’s Books, 2012, 344 pgs.

Once there were two sisters, as different as sisters could be. One kept her feet on the ground, did well in school, and learned every fact about the world that she could. The other ran wild, kept her secrets, and tried to learn the language of the birds. So, when one night their parents disappeared, they each tried to find them in their own way, on their own journeys. Summer followed clues, tried to put together the puzzle, and found help in an old man. Bird listened to her heart and the sound of the birdsong in the trees and found herself captured by a puppeteer. Both were necessary, both were pathways to their parents, and both led to the salvation of the queen of the birds.

You know, usually when I write a review of something I try to find an entry point, a springboard which I can use to launch into everything else I want to talk about. Maybe I know the author and have some thoughts on their other work. Maybe one of those weird, picky plot points has broken an otherwise decent story for me. Most often it’s the fundamental idea I take from the book, the thing that stuck with me so much it overwhelmed everything else.

I think a lot of people do this. Time and time again I hear people say how hard it is to talk about books or movies that were just middling for them; when nothing about a piece sticks out, it’s very hard to say anything more than that.

This book has almost the exact opposite problem. It’s not that I have no thoughts or feelings on it, but that those I do have are badly, violently mixed, to the extent that I almost can’t get a read on them. While reading I flailed wildly between complete engagement and utter boredom, I have about five different theories as to what the actual point of the story is, and all in all I don’t quite know what to make of it.

Typically I’d say I didn’t get this book, but I think I got as much as I usually do. I just can’t set what I think about it straight in my head. I’ve put this review off for weeks because of that problem, but it’s been over a month and my thoughts still haven’t cleared into anything usable.

So. I guess I have to bite the bullet and start somewhere anyway.

I like the characters. I will say that flat out. They’re probably the one part of the novel I wasn’t ambivalent about. The story being told has a sort of modern fable feel to it, and they’re archetypal enough to suit that while still being developed enough that they’re not too flat for a long-form work.

I was worried about the setup of carefree dreamer vs. logical realist for the sisters at the beginning. With that sort of framing I’m always anxious that one side is going to be portrayed as completely right when, frankly, the world needs both. I think Catmull did well with it, though. The girls both need to take on a little of the other to survive, in the end, and neither ended up where they thought they belonged at the beginning. It’s good development for interesting characters.

The prose is beautiful, too. Writing in most YA novels has a tendency to be more workman-like than anything, but this is lyrical and poetic and really creates that dreamlike fable quality. Everything about the writing does, really, from the moral interjections by the narrator, to the way the story develops, to the constant mythical references the author tosses in. We have the phoenix, the world tree, the swan queen, and the two sisters in the woods.

Combined with the archetypal characters and their slow, gentle expansion from that, everything about this book seems perfectly timeless. To the extent that the first time one of the girls mentioned her cell phone I was completely thrown for a loop. And for the most part, the novel does exactly what an expanded fairytale should, which is toss its characters headlong into its strange world and let them wander along to explore and learn. There is a three act structure to the story, but it’s not as brutally obvious as it is in most books.

I do like that. I like when authors have the ability to let a story breathe and develop as it will. A slow build of plot and atmosphere always lends a lot of power to the big moments in a narrative when they do come.

But that has to be set against the fact that that the lyrical prose often sacrifices clarity and readability to get that quality. Against the fact that said slow build sometimes felt meandering and aimless. There were definitely parts of this novel where I had to force myself to push through. There were also parts where I was blazing along in an emotional rush and struggling not to cry, and both of those things have to do with the exact same quality in the prose and plotting. The good and the bad are inextricably bound up together here.

Though I may have been more consistently engaged if I hadn’t been changing my mind on the meaning of the book every twenty pages. Those interpretive interjections from the narrator add to the fable feel, but make it unclear what the overall point is. Is this a coming of age story about finding your actual place, instead of forcing yourself into what you thought you wanted? Is it a warning against building your identity solely on other people? Is it a dissertation on the courage necessary to jump into the creative conversation without fear of failing? Is it just a fable, whose components aren’t necessarily metaphorical, but more atmospheric?

I can pull out evidence from the novel for all of the above, but I’m not sure I have an overarching interpretation that fits everything. Nothing drives the overall point home or clarifies it. Again, I’d say I didn’t get this book, but I was picking things out. I’m just not sure what my ultimate take on it is. Though even that is mixed, because those shifts in meaning did keep me intrigued even through the slow parts.

Which is probably the closest I’m going to get to a consensus on Summer and Bird: the good and bad in it are part and parcel of each other. I write this already knowing that I’ll be coming back to it at some point to see what I missed, what the story tells me next time. I think having a story that’s interesting enough that your audience wants to return to it is probably the goal of most authors. From that perspective it’s a complete success, and that’s probably the highest compliment I can pay to it.

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