Having recently finished reading Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, I came to a single conclusion:
I wanted to re-read Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy.
I couldn't help it. The book were addictive, certainly, and easy to read. They were even harder to forget, and to stop thinking about. Marks of some of the best kinds of books, certainly. The pacing, the plotting, the themes of war and oppression, rebellion and rebuilding -- all are relevant and thought provoking. I can practically hear the English teachers in high schools everywhere mentally outlining lesson plans based around these novels.
But the real reason I'm writing this review is because of a thought that was provoked for me by fellow writer/blogger (one much more successful than I am) Cleolinda Jones, whose Movies in 15 Minutes and whose blog parodies have become incredibly popular Internet fare, and rightly so. Cleolinda and I shared an interest in the Twilight series that ran along the lines of "Why are these books so popular?" Cleo's recaps of the books and movies have been informed by her knowledge of the genre as well as her knowledge of literary devices and plot tropes.
One of her observations was that Bella made a desirable heroine for young female readers because she was just normal -- she didn't dress sexy, she didn't have to sleep with anyone to get attention; in fact her attraction for Edward is predicated on the fact that she appears not to notice him (as far as he can tell). Bella is in charge of the progression of the romance, and in a world where real girls feel pressured to sexualize themselves, or feel obligated to have sex at a young age, a fictional world where it's the boy who's putting on the brakes is at least relieving, at most empowering.
Katniss Everdeen is a similar heroine, in a small sense, except for the fact that while Bella spends almost all four books obsessing over the romance, Katniss spends her time thinking about almost everything but romance. She can't afford to think about it. Her world is simply about staying alive -- nothing more or less. In Bella's case, danger is peripheral -- we all know Edward isn't really going to hurt her, even though that is ostensibly a threat, and we're pretty sure that the other vamps probably won't either. In Katniss's case, her safety and that of her loved ones is much, much less certain.
But what distinguishes these books far beyond Stephanie Meyers' creations goes much deeper.
Cleolinda talks about the love triangle device, which anyone who has ever heard the phrase "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob" knows is a big part of the Twi-books. And of course, when something works in publishing (more usually in movies, but it's hardly confined to one form of art) lots more people jump on the bandwagon to use it in their work.
Collins uses the love triangle in her books too, and certainly I am not suggesting that she took it from Meyers, who was certainly not the first person to use it herself (and pretty blatantly admitted within the pages of her novels to borrowing it from Bronte), but given the same genre and the proximity of popularity, it's worth considering.
Cleolinda writes: "It's not as bad as books where there isn't any other driving factor ..., but it is a major factor, and it's part of the fabric of the story. And I think the triangle works here; it's tied to the themes of the book, it's about emotional (and political!) connections rather than how totally hot anyone is, it's well done. It's just--man, I would love to read a YA book that didn't include the lines, "But you're still always thinking of him. I wish he would make it easier for me to hate him." I think what the problem really is--it's not that a girl has to choose between two guys who symbolize larger issues in her life and society at large. It's that the two guys both love her and just wait in patient agony for her to decide. And I'm just getting tired of that paradigm--I enjoy romance being part of a part of a genre book's foundation, I don't have a problem with that. It's just--is there no other configuration we could go with? I don't know. You'd probably rather me not make these comparisons, but in the current world of publishing trends, they're there." (The rest of Cleolinda's insightful and witty post here.)
I will admit that I'm with her on finding the ever-patient boys-in-waiting a bit tiresome. But in The Hunger Games, I argue this -- yes, it's there, and the boys do wait patiently for Katniss to decide. But the relationship issues are more than just relationship issues.
They're part of a manipulation game that has Katniss at the center. The relationship issues seem at a perpetual standoff at times, but they have to be because so much is at stake here, and the relationships become political leverage.
But even beyond that, the place where Collins demonstrates authorial mastery is in her creation of a mature heroine whose relationship hangups are predicated on her own maturity, and her own older-than-her-years understanding of her world and how it works. She doesn't want to get married because it leads to children, and her children would never be safe in the world she knows - end of story.
Ultimately, the thing that impressed me the most was the maturity of the entire series, and Collins' ability to push beyond the tendency that falls too often among authors -- the tendency to shield their characters. Collins doesn't protect anyone -- not Katniss, not Peeta, not Gale, Prim, Haymitch -- no once comes away unscathed. Survival is possible for most, but not likely for all, and Collins doesn't sideline her power as an author. She doesn't relegate herself to killing off minor characters in a novel series about war, about war and revolution in a tyrannical society. The outcomes are heartwrenching at times, but they're realistic.
So yes, there's a love triangle, a teen one at that, but there is little wishy-washing, serious issues at stake and defensible, realistic obstacles that amount to more than simply "Well, I like him, but I like him more..."
In YA literature, that is both a relief and an accomplishment. In any literature, it's fine reading.
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