Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Scalene Love Triangle

Brian Katcher's Playing With Matches is the story of an offbeat love triangle that John Hughes might have written if he had been 30 in 2010. The award for Best Actor goes to 17 year-old Leon Sanders, who is just trying to get through high school. He's not attractive, he's not cool, he doesn't make waves, and he doesn't want to.  He has a few (strange) friends, but he just wants to be with someone who understands him. Who doesn't? It's a classic story of boy vs. what society expects of him vs. himself.

When the lockers are reassigned at school one day, Leon finds himself next to Melody, who is also not attractive and not cool. In fact, she is universally shunned. "Like at any school, some people at Montgomery Zummer were universally shunned. That girl in the wheelchair. The guy with leukemia who was obviously going to get his own page in the yearbook before graduation. The retarded kids from the resource room. And Melody." Melody had been in an accident during childhood that left her with no ears, little hair, and an extremely scarred face. Something about Melody's shyness leads Leon to chance telling her a bad joke, which she finds hysterical, and the two begin spending some time together.

Leon is happy to have someone in his life who appreciates him for who he is; however, he is just sensitive enough to the social order at school to worry about what people think of him. At first, he and Melody hang out in private, and later he chances introducing her to his rag-tag group of friends, who immediately take her under their wing. When Leon and Melody become more than friends, her confidence grows as does his self-consciousness as he increasingly worries about what people will think. And just when you think he will work it out, he and Melody will forever be high school sweethearts, and the story is just too neat and clean...

Amy Green, the hottest girl in the school, uncharacteristically invites Leon to the prom. Leon's ensuing struggle as he tries to reconcile doing what is right and doing what is right for him is the stuff adolescence is made of. He tries to find a way to please everyone, but of course, that is never possible. Hearts. Will. Break.

This is the kind of novel that will remind you just how painful it can be to be 17 and how dangerous life can be if you dare to care about people. I won't give away the ending except to assure you that both Leon and Melody come out of the experience with a much more solid sense of self, and that is what we hope for all our young adults.