The Short Version: After discovering Treasure Island at the age of twenty-five, our unnamed narrator realizes that she’s never once had an adventure or done anything truly exciting. So she sets out to live her life by the four major values of the book: Boldness, Resolution, Independence, and Horn-Blowing. Not surprisingly, this obsession gets a little out of control rather quickly and results in the life and death of a parrot, a knife incident, and the loss of most of her friendships and relationships.
The Review: Much like Rebecca Barry, the New York Times reviewer of this book, I was taken in by the exclamation points. It’s not just one, it’s three. Three exclamation points. Damned exciting, if you ask me. And the plot was intriguing – because a) it sounded like a great quarter-life crisis novel (done in an interesting and ‘new’ way) and b) it made me reflect on the various books I’ve become obsessed with in my time. Happily, it makes its mark on both of those points and does so succinctly and with aplomb in just under 175 pages.
Which, I suppose, makes one question the legitimacy of charging full price for a novel of less than 200 pages – like charging full price for a movie that runs 80 minutes – but that’s an unnecessary digression and one that’s unfair to the brilliant independent press that is Europa Editions. So, back to our main storyline.
The location of the book is somewhat unclear to me – there’s snow on the ground but also a reference to the Dry Tortugas that threw me a bit. Mostly, though, it made me think of the suburbs outside Cambridge in Massachusetts. For whatever reason, I saw Lars’ place as having essentially been the basement apartment I stayed in last fall for a week. It had that feeling of being Northeast and also close enough to an urban center without ever actually needing to go there. The tone, also, made me think of my current post-collegiate wanderings – or what they’d be like if I weren’t living in New York. So, again, perhaps I associate with an alternate universe version of me or something.
Our narrator is much like the narrator of most post-Garden State novels: a bit listless, rather quirky, and due for a forced growing-up. Her younger sister is more successful (although not by much and not in the Independence category), her parents are mystifying to her, her best friend seems a bit too content with her state, and her boyfriend is a bit of a schlub. And then she reads Treasure Island and it’s like WHAM – what one’s life could be like. I appreciated the way Levine handled the “isn’t that a boy’s book?” question, too – this novel feels like it’s the sort of thing a guy would experience (imagine it: some 25-year-old frat boy who suddenly reads that book and wants to go off on adventures!) and it’s all the more honest for being a girl who does it. Her narrator never really explains it away but isn’t that how it goes when a book truly speaks to us?
The various plot points are entertaining enough: the sister having an affair with an older man, the parents dealing with getting older and their kids returning home, the parrot!, the attempts to find new friends long after the time for developing friendships has passed… but to me, this book is a philosophical question spun out over the course of a short novel. It’s the question of how do we deal with obsessions. Look at Tumblr these days: you see ‘fandoms’ for every TV show and movie to come out in the last fifteen years – and even plenty of novels. People change the way they dress based on a character they see on TV, they add a saying to their speech because of a book they read. I’m not at all innocent of this, by the way. I honestly do it all the time. But what happens when people take the obsession to an extreme? Start really changing their lives around to fit this cockamamie idea of being a fictional character. None of us can be Jim Hawkins – or Sherlock or The Doctor or Johnny Depp. Because those people aren’t real – or, if they are (hi Johnny), they’re who they are because they’ve had decades to create themselves in that way.
At the end of the novel, the narrator’s sister says something about how this book tells her to do things and yet she hasn’t actually done anything. This leads the narrator to stab her sister in the hand (in a rather hilarious Arrested Development-esque moment, I must say) but the point is taken. Pun not entirely intended. If you model your life after something, if you take a text (be it celluloid or digital or paper) and make it your absolute gospel, then you’re no longer actually doing anything. You’re simply pretending at something, using the excuse of imitation to take away the stress of existing in reality. You take this too far, it becomes a legitimate psychological condition.
This is not to say that you can’t push the line. I loved – absolutely loved – the touch at the end of our narrator’s mother’s map having a big red X on her destination and (I therefore assumed) a red dotted line showing her the way. It’s okay to indulge your fantasies and play-act a bit. But also, the start on the map is marked with a star that says “you are here” – which is a lovely way to remind us that we’re grounded in a certain level of reality. We aren’t on a pirate ship (although this is the Pirate Summer!) but sitting on a subway car, surrounded by a million other people who definitely won’t indulge your delusions. So sure, take up the call of Robert Louis Stevenson – but don’t go crazy. Find a way to synthesize it with your life. At least, that’s the moral I took away.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. It’s a little short to be a full experience – and I’d argue that it’s a little short on cohesion at times (a few things seemed not to quite match up with how they were previously laid out). But the book is funny as hell, our narrator is a delightful unreliable wackjob (the sort I love to associate with), and the message of the book as a whole is important. It made me think, quite a bit, as I’m surrounded by the books I’ve loved my whole life and as I think about the way those books and shows and events have influenced me to become who I am today. So go out there and do some horn-blowing, people – just remember, pirates aren’t as cool in real life these days.