One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak
One for Sorrow came to me essentially sight unseen. I won it from Bantam Spectra during a Twitter promotion. Well, I reasoned, it was compared to The Lovely Bones and Scott Westerfeld wrote a very nice blurb for it. What could go too wrong?
One for Sorrow is the story of fifteen year old Adam McCormick, a boy in Ohio who tries to live as invisibly as possible, both at home, where his parents constantly fight and his druggie brother resents him, and at school, where standing out gets you beaten up. When an equally invisible classmate, Jamie Marks, is brutally murdered, everyone is shocked, but Adam especially. You see, Adam can see things others can’t see, like ghosts. Taught by his grandmother to never talk to ghosts, Adam breaks her rule to try and help Jamie. But the more he helps Jamie, the harder it is for Jamie to move on…
One for Sorrow’s troubles start with a bang with Adam. His motive are maddeningly vague. While he has at least some motivation for running away from a dysfunctional home, the events of the novel seem to happen to Adam, instead of because of him. Even when he’s running away, he does so at the behest and under the guidance of someone else. He’s not an active part of his own life, which, I suppose, makes a point about how ghostlike Adam can be, but also makes Adam a very dull boy. Adam’s passivity is not a totally bad thing–it’s even endearing when Gracie, his girlfriend, propositions him and he’s not sure what to do besides reciprocate. But it hurts him and the novel in every other way. He’s also too much the stereotypical teenage “outsider” for me to care about Adam. His sullen attitude towards, well, everything is very off-putting. I’m always a little wary of stories that present high school as a battleground, especially for the “weird”–even as a queer French-American girl in Georgia, my experience in high school was nothing like that. (Who on earth gets beat up for good grades in this day and age without their tormentors landing in a world of trouble?) I’m not saying it’s not possible, of course–my experience is just one of many–but it definitely rubs me the wrong way. He’s also ridiculously unflappable, taking to squatting in a church and journeying through the supernatural world with the same deadened aplomb he reacts to everything with. This removes any sort of tension from the novel, and really hurts the supernatural element of the story. Adam is just unsympathetic; it’s sometimes hard to care what he thinks, especially when you realize he definitely knows better.
One for Sorrow’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is how it captures teenagers almost perfectly–self-pitying, deadly serious about trivial matters, and awkward. While it’s fairly astounding how Barzak managed to capture the teenage mind, it’s also tedious to read. It may be because I’m in college, and I’m sick to death of self-pitying teenagers who take everything too seriously. Watching Adam write down a self-important list about human (and ghostly) nature was an awkward moment of identification–while I’ve done that, I also identify it with middle school, the most awkward time of anyone’s academic career. Listening to Adam gets boring, quite honestly. He’s just not interesting or engaging.
The heart of the novel is meant to be the friendship between Adam and Jamie, but that friendship is far trivial to support a novel. Adam’s motive for helping Jamie is weak. While I understand Adam’s regret at not befriending Jamie in life, their connection to each other is simply not developed enough for Adam to go to the lengths he does for Jamie. He ignores the warnings of his grandmother and his girlfriend to help Jamie, but there’s no real explanation why. Jamie’s limited page time in the novel certainly doesn’t help. He appears at the beginning, vanishes for a very long portion of the novel, and then appears again towards the end. He doesn’t feel important. The few hints of romance, which would have explained a lot about Adam’s motivation, come far too late in the novel to make any impact or explain anything.
Gracie, Adam’s girlfriend, fares better. She’s smart and a little too direct, but also just a kid–she’s the only one who does “the right thing” as Adam’s life gets weirder and weirder. His family life is actually interesting, as his mother struggles with her love for her family and her need to stand up to her husband. I almost wish we’d focused more on his mother, whose subplot is actually satisfying and interesting. The grandmother, who is mentioned a few times and cameos in one of Adam’s dreams, sounds interesting. I quite liked the female cast of One for Sorrow, I have to say. They certainly fared much better than Adam.
There are some interesting elements in the supernatural nature of the novel, such as ghosts, who burn memories to stay warm, and how Adam sees the world, able to see into people’s souls through their shadows. When Gracie and Adam have sex for the first time, he describes her scent as sunflower, but not the way the actual flower smells–how the word smells. Adam’s collecting of words for his experiences is interesting. Unfortunately, Barzak doesn’t explain anything to the reader. Even though Adam is telling us this story, he doesn’t think we need clarification. I understand the desire not to dump masses of information and background knowledge on a reader, but there’s a difference between that and clarification. Why do ghosts need to burn memories? Who are the men without skin? Why do Gracie and Adam have similar supernatural sight, despite very different backgrounds? Adam is so deadened that he barely questions it, but it really feels like a missed opportunity or a mass of plot holes being covered up by being ignored. It’s frustrating.
The pacing is stuttering and jerky–there are long sections where nothing occurs but Adam’s teenage musings and aimless wanderings, and short sections where things actually happen, although you wouldn’t exactly know it from Adam’s reaction. It stutters and starts like a bad car. I almost fell asleep reading this in a mall due to the pacing, especially during a passage where Jamie and Adam are squatting in a church. Details are dropped in too late. As I mentioned, hints of a romantic connection between Adam and Jamie come way too late to motivate Adam in any way, and Adam’s anger at God feels like a flimsy reason to have Adam observe an African-American Baptist service. There are also plenty of plot points completely dropped. While Adam often wonders about Jamie’s murderer, we never discover who it is. It also takes a while for Barzak to get a handle on the sex scenes. The first few are practically explicit, but the last few involve Adam’s sunflower imagery for Gracie and are actually quite sweet, in their own awkward way.
I’m very disappointed in One for Sorrow, I have to say. I’d heard good things about it, and it’s very hard for me to see the good in it. In the interests of fairness, you can read a positive review at YA Fabulous! here.
Bottom line: Skip it. Any comparisons to The Lovely Bones are wildly unfounded–with an unsympathetic, sullen, and deadened protagonist helping a ghost he knows he shouldn’t for no real reason, One for Sorrow’s few good elements (good female characters, interesting supernatural elements, and a definite handle on teenagers) drown amid the awful pacing and lack of any real tension.
I got this book by winning a Twitter promotion hosted by Bantam Spectra.