Title: My Not-So-Still Life
Author: Liz Gallagher
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Series: Companion to The Opposite of Invisible
Other Reviews for This Author: None
Sometimes you read a book just because it's short and recommended. That was the case with My Not-So-Still Life. I had read a review of this quiet release on Steph Su Reads. While the review had some positives and negatives to it, Steph praised the writing style and how it was an enjoyable read. My Not-So-Still-Life fit the bill exactly and made for a fresh, condensed reading experience. Readers may want to wait for the novel to appear in paperback format before enjoying it, but there's something about Gallagher's work that resonates despite the novel's length and downsides.
Vanessa is an artist. She lives and breathes her artwork. All of her friends (and her ex-boyfriend) are artists. She's only in high school, but art fascinates her in a way that nothing else does. She mostly hangs out with her friend Nick, who is a quiet, artistic gay guy with a knack for color, and Holly, an extremely dedicated musician who spends more time practicing than attempting to have a social life. In Vanessa's world, art is all around. It lives and breathes, touching every available surface and making the world a brighter place. She lives for the day that she can exit high school and get one step closer to being an artist - and an adult.
In order to become an adult, Vanessa believes that she has to remake her entire outlook on life. Things can only go so far when you are stuck in a perpetual high school perspective. She has already had to deal with heartbreak, considering that her boyfriend broke up with her and is now dating someone else (a girl who is pretty cool, sadly, which makes hating her impossible for Vanessa). Now she just needs a cool-time job that will allow her to make money and see the world. A job opening at the local art supplies store seems like the best bet. Her mother thinks it's a little bit soon for her daughter to start thinking of working and making money like that, but Vanessa's excitement overpowers any of her mother's friendly advice.
Growing up is harder to do than Vanessa thinks. She attempts to do it time and time again, but her attempts only make things more complicated than they need to be. Holly gets annoyed when Vanessa tries to play matchmaker and set her up with a boy that she likes - a boy that she isn't ready to speak to yet, much less ask out on a date or reveal feelings for. Nick doesn't want to completely dive into his sexuality yet, either, yet Vanessa seems determined to push it on him in order for him to feel better about it. Vanessa can't keep on forcing people - or herself - to grow up, and it isn't long before her mistakes pile up, making her feel more confused than she was before.
Lately, I've gotten a real thing for narrators like Vanessa. There's something so fun about the "art nerd" character - the type of character that is a cool outsider and loves something artistic to the point where it permeates the narrative with references to making art of any type. These types of characters are often outcasts from the social commonality, but they also often have strong groups of friends that understand them and are unique in their own ways. Vanessa fits this character type spot-on, and because of that she made the story fun. Her voice is light and immature, but she's still enough of a teenager to avoid total immaturity/stupidity. She's the kind of girl who wants to grow up too fast, and her entire character arc involves that idea. She starts off as a very flighty girl who changes her hair color at the drop of a hat. She wears bracelets based on the color they are and the mood she's in - purple being the best level of mood, black being the worst. Everything about her physical personae screams "artistic, edgy chick". That's the kind of thing Vanessa wants people to think. However, her character arc shows how she shifts the idea of representing her artistry to actually performing it. She goes from a girl who believes in the power of her image to a girl that believes in what she can accomplish artistically sans her image. It's all about Vanessa getting a spark of maturity and understanding. Something is just so sweet and bubbly about her voice, and she keeps the journey interesting despite it not amounting to much in the grander sense of things.
Since the novel is so short, you really don't get a good idea of the other characters and their depth. Nick and Holly are represented to an extent, but both of them could have used some more character exploration. Holly's romance and Nick's sexuality both play pivotal roles in Vanessa's character growth, but you never really get the idea that either of these characters are as three-dimensional as she is. There just isn't enough page time devoted to it, and the story itself relies on concise prose that eliminates extraneous character subtleties that might come out from a more verbose style. I very much enjoyed them, however, and it is always fabulous to see gay characters and musicians in YA novels - y'all know how much I love seeing gay characters. Nick fits some stereotypes and doesn't fit others, and I liked how that part of his characterization was handled. Vanessa also has a strong relationship with her family. It was nice to see a supportive mother character who had to deal with a physically demanding job (I mean, how many young adult novels truly show how the parents are affected by their jobs?) and a fun grandparent character that didn't get too ridiculous. The employees at Vanessa's workplace were also very fun, and I liked seeing how they reflected the type of person Vanessa wanted to become at some point in her life.
If there's one thing that makes My Not-So-Still Life a problematic read, it's the premise as an entirety. There's so much going for this novel as a contemporary piece. It's light-hearted, but it also attempts to be serious. It hits both tones well, but nothing ends up being developed much on either end because of the novel's length. So much attention is payed to the concise prose that the idea of overall development gets lost in the fray. There are novels that manage to have a similar tone and hit all of the right emotional nodes for the reader despite their short length (I'm thinking of Weetzie Bat here, although the language in that is more poetic than in this novel). My Not-So-Still Life just lacks that extra ounce of story investment because of the length. The story is over and done with and the reader remembers it and the characters well enough, but it feels like they missed things along the way because the story went by so quickly. There's nothing wrong with a book that explores the life events that go on every day. Many books and authors do it to a rousing amount of success, but those novels also often benefit from exploring the small things in detail. They explore a larger character arc and take time to flesh out the issues that they deal with. My Not-So-Still Life just doesn't have that benefit to it.
Despite this issue, I took to Gallagher's writing with surprising ease. Her prose is concise is and weighted - she avoids any type of purple prose like the plague - and it creates for a very strong narrative experience. Vanessa's voice feels authentic, yet there is also a level of well-voiced artistry going on with how things are expressed. Vanessa's story feels important. The events in her life have a nice feeling about them that makes them more than just a series of fluffy things going on. The fact that Gallagher achieves this tone with such a short book is impressive. It makes me want to look into more of her work as a writer, which makes My Not-So-Still Life a worthwhile experience in that regard. Her pacing is fast, and she doesn't spend too much time beating her characters' issues and ideas into the reader's head. It's very much a novel that trusts its readers to understand that what's going on is important, but not in need of repetition every second. It also fits in with Vanessa's fun and energetic voice. This is the type of book that will make you feel better while thinking a little bit - it may not change your outlook on life as a whole, but it will certainly give you more than you expected it to with its writing.
I quite enjoyed My Not-So-Still Life, but some parts of it were just underwhelming. The novel never really gets beyond its simple storyline, and some of the side characters just don't show the depths that they could show. Vanessa is a strong narrator, and her voice makes the story fly by. The writing style is fabulous and makes the simplest prose seem weighted and pretty. Readers who enjoy a light contemporary story with some subtler emotions thrown in will find a lot to love about this book, but the length of the novel may deter them from purchasing it in hardcover. This is the kind of book that does better with a paperback purchase or a library borrow - and it still remains memorable.
Cover: This cover pops out. I don't like how the face feels stretched too much because of the hardcover size (I have the hardcover, hence the references to the cover type), but it will certainly pop out on the shelf.
Rating: 3.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Random House!!)