From Goodreads: Star athlete and straight-A student Nanette O’Hare has played the role of dutiful daughter for as long as she can remember. But one day, a beloved teacher gives her his worn copy of The Bubblegum Reaper– a mysterious, out-of-print cult classic– and the rebel within Nanette awakens.
As the new and outspoken Nanette attempts to insert her true self into the world with wild abandon, she befriends the reclusive author and falls in love with a young, troubled poet. Forced to make some hard choices that bring devastating consequences, Nanette learns the hard way that rebellion can sometimes come at a high price.
This is honestly the hardest book I’ve ever tried to review. I read this book months ago. This review has been sitting in my drafts forever. I’ve written and deleted paragraph after paragraph, not quite coming up with the words I really want to use. I’m not sure why. The more I think about it, the more conflicted I am with what I want to say. I liked this book. Or at least parts of it. I remember thinking as I read and as I finished that there was so much within this book that was relatable and important. But attempting to write about the book has been a lot harder than I thought.
As I read through, I found myself saying, “Wow! This is an amazing quote! This is such an important theme!” But when it came time to write about it… Nothing.
But I keep coming back to this review, still trying to write something about it, because I still feel like there are words in there somewhere.
(*Note– By the end, I found a lot of words. For having nothing to say, this is probably the longest review I’ve written. Be warned.
Also, there are some minor spoilers, but no major plot line reveals. So it’s semi-spoiler free?)
I’ll start with the good parts. A central part of the novel is the book, The Bubblegum Reaper, that Nanette is given by her teacher. Matthew Quick does an excellent job of creating a novel within a novel, without actually letting you read it at all. The story of The Bubblegum Reaper weaves its way throughout the narrative, but you’re only given glimpses of it, as told through the characters and their interpretations of the story. From the small bits that we are shown, it is a Catcher in the Rye-type coming of age novel in which the main character, Wrigley, takes a very pessimistic view of the world claiming that he just wants to “quit,” falls in love with an identical twin but can’t figure out which one, and saves a turtle named Unproductive Ted. Much like Catcher in the Rye, The Bubblegum Reaper has achieved cult status, with websites and forums dedicated to its interpretation and fan theories. Nanette devours the novel and gets swept up in its story, leading her to new friendships, romance, and a new attitude towards her life and how she wants to live it.
I thought the message of the book was good and something very relatable to those who are struggling to find themselves and feel as if they don’t really fit anywhere. One of the pressing questions Nanette had for Booker, The Bubblegum Reaper‘s author, was what Wrigley wanted to quit. Instead of answering, Nigel posed a question of his own– “Don’t you ever feel like you want to quit doing something everyone else makes you feel like you’re supposed to keep doing? Didn’t you ever just simply want to… stop?” When Nanette thinks of this in terms of her own life, she realizes she’s been playing soccer most of her life simply because it’s expected of her, not because she enjoys it. She thinks about the friends she has because of it, and how, other than soccer, they have nothing in common anymore. So she quits.
Instead of finding true freedom and living happily ever after, like most books would lead you to believe, Nanette finds herself isolated and ostracized in school, with no friends left. She goes through her day ignored and feeling completely invisible to everyone around her, which she terms “ghost floating.” Her home life has deteriorated. Even her new friends are not quite perfect. When things spiral far out of control, Nanette decides that maybe things would be better if she just went back to the way she used to be. But now that she’s gotten the freedom to live her own life, going back to her old ways isn’t so easy.
This is the part of the book that I felt the strongest about. After everything has gone so badly for Nanette, she attempts an “experiment” as she calls it. It starts at the urging of her therapist to think of herself in third person– to see herself from the outside, as someone else. She does, and with it, the narrative of the story switches from first-person to third-person as well. As she lives within the third-person, she takes her experiment one step further– by living as the old Nanette would again. She “swallows her entire self deep down inside her, where no one can see.” She rejoins the soccer team, goes to parties with her old friends, and starts dating one of the popular boys. Even her family life improves– both Nanette’s relationship with her parents, as well as their relationship with each other. But it’s still not happily ever after. She’s once again living a life that everyone else wants instead of living her own.
When she finally gets to the revelation that she can’t live someone else’s life, that she needs to live her own, and live it in the first person, she’s left with no one. She’s burned so many bridges that she feels completely alone. No one understands how she is feeling, thinking of her as a selfish snob. We’re not left with the quintessential happily-ever-after ending. There’s truth and reality in it. But at the same time, we’re left with hope as well.
I’m not one to highlight and annotate books– the idea freaks me completely out– but if I was, there would be several quotes and passages in this I’d underline the crap out of. Like this one from Nanette’s therapist:
There are seven billion people in the world, and you have only experienced twenty thousand at most. And those twenty thousand were fairly homogeneous. Your experiences with people have been largely dictated by your parents’ choices. The neighborhood in which they chose to purchase a house. Where they sent you to school. And maybe those choices weren’t the best for you. Maybe you don’t fit in where you are now. But you still managed to survive four years of high school and have a few meaningful experiences along the way. There are seven billion other people out there. Seven billion. Are you really pessimistic enough to believe that you wouldn’t get along with any of them?
— From Every Exquisite Thing, page 254
Even months after reading this book, this is the quote that sticks with me the most. In conversations the other day with coworkers about how awful school was for some of us, I kept thinking of this quote, wanting to pass on the wisdom in it. School may be a terrible, demoralizing experience for some of us, but as adults, it gets better. Adulthood gives you the luxury of choice– choice of who you want to be, what you want to do, where you want to live, and the freedom that comes with those decisions. You get to surround yourself with people who are like you– find your own tribe and revel in it. And when you struggle to find yourself again, you have the choice to move on in search of it.
But why do I still feel so conflicted about this book, even after finding so much to say about it? I think it’s because, despite the message of the book, I just didn’t care for the characters at all. They weren’t fleshed out and the entire story felt a bit rushed and very disjointed. Things just happened without any real explanation behind it. And the touted “wild abandon” that Nanette was supposed to insert herself into life with? Other than a couple outbursts and a dramatic exit from her soccer career, not quite so wild. It just left me with an overall “meh” feeling. The feeling that no matter how much the message resonated with me, the book would never be more an a 3-star read. It’s important, but just not that great.
Because of language, drinking, and frequent references to sex, I’d put this at a late high school reading range.
Have you ever read a book that changed your entire outlook on life after you were finished, like Nanette and The Bubblegum Reaper?
Learn more about Matthew Quick