“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”William Goldman, “The Princess Bride”
Hardship is wildly commonplace in this world. We’re all constantly fighting battles of different sizes: work pressure, family dramas, societal problems, internal struggles… internet connectivity issues. Sometimes we get so caught up in the pain/problems/annoyance we’re muddling through that we can’t see where other people might also be battling. Our fracture hurts more than another person’s break, because the hurt is ours to deal with. How do we move past this – how do we reach a point where we can look past our own experiences to extend grace and help to the people around us? One way, I think, is to listen to as many people’s stories as possible, familiarising ourselves with where they’ve been and where they’re going. So, my answer (as per usual) is… books!
This post is the second in a three-part series. Last week I compared the characters Lara Jean (from Jenny Han‘s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before) and Dylan (from Hayley Long‘s The Nearest Far Away Place), and talked about how I thought they contrasted and responded differently to the situations they found themselves in in their respective stories. Today I’m tackling the theme of hardship and tragedy in these two narratives, and how my young protagonists respond to the conflicts they face.
Let’s start with Dylan, who is dealing with one heck of an emotional situation. Just by reading the back of the book, you know you’re in for a read suffused with heartache – Dylan and his family are in a catastrophic, freak car accident that kills his parents, and the majority of the book is about how he and his brother Griff process their parents’ deaths. This is the motherlode of tragedy, you guys. It’s a whole lot. Dylan, as focaliser and narrator, is not only trying to process his loss but is consumed with making sure Griff is finding ways to live through the pain of what has happened. Long writes sensitively and emotively about the various stages of grief, and shows both Dylan and Griff navigating these stages in ways that are subtle but powerful: the healing properties of simple kindness, animals, music and friendship, punctuated by the power of denial and a stubborn unwillingness to move on, the guttural, all-consuming pain of realisation and loss, and the trauma of being left behind. I’m sorry to tell you this, but you will cry if you read this book. (I cry reading almost anything, but, uh, you will cry when reading this book. I read it in public. Oops.)
In comparison, what I might term Lara Jean’s “tragedy” will seem laughable to you at first. The whole story turns on the fact that she has, in her past, written love letters to “all the boys [she’s] loved” (there are five) and hidden them in her room, and these letters are found and sent to their respective recipients by someone other than Lara Jean. Tragic in every sense of a teenager’s use of the word, right? FACEPALM EMOJI GASPING EMOJI WAILING EMOJI MONKEY-COVERING-ITS-FACE EMOJI. What ensues is Lara Jean trying to patch up the chaos her letters have caused and minimise the amount of embarrassment she has to go through in her penultimate high school year. Yeah, it’s nothing in comparison to Dylan and Griff’s tragedy… but believe me when I say it’s still a lot of emotional upheaval. If anything, the real tragedy in Lara Jean’s life isn’t front-and-centre in this story – her and her sisters’ mom died when she was 11, and you have to wonder what role her mom might have played in helping Lara Jean navigate the messy, silly world of teenage romance had she still been alive. You’re left to ponder this on your own as the reader; it isn’t something Lara Jean dwells on or mopes over, yet you can’t help but ask the question. Throughout TATBILB (I cannot with this abbreviation, Jenny; can we shorten our book titles, please?!), characters that are the story’s/Lara Jean’s natural nemeses are given space to develop and explanations for why they behave in the ways they do: everyone in this silly, romangsty read is dealing with their own stuff.
“The trouble with tragedy is the fuss it makesSamuel Beckett
About life and death and other tuppenny aches”
When it comes down to it, then, I think the takeaway is this: we’re all just trying to navigate a safe way through our various tragedies, regardless of their size. It does little to compare our pain or problems to others’, or to so immerse ourselves in whatever we’re dealing with that we can’t see beyond it; what’s more useful is to acknowledge hardship as a whole and do our best to see each other through it. Capiche? Be kind! Find peace! Mac out!