If you look toward the right and down a bit, down where it says “Currently Reading,” you’ll notice that I’m reading a work of nonfiction. Unlike most people, apparently, I read way more fiction than nonfiction; in fact, other than writing books, I read almost no books of nonfiction at all. If you ever see me reading a book of nonfiction that’s not a writing book, it pretty much means one thing and one thing only: I have just had my socks knocked clean off by a work of fiction, and I can’t read any other fiction until I’ve reset my brain and my heart.
Well consider my socks blown pretty much across the room.
I’m pretty sure it’s going to take me a while to unpack all the different emotional reactions I had to this book, so I’m not sure I can be coherent in telling you about it. My first observations as I began reading were that Dietz had a great quirky voice and that King kept the reading experience unpredictable with things like the occasional vignette from the point of view of the pagoda in town, or from the point of view of “the dead kid.”
This doesn’t belong here, but since I’m about to make this book sound really heavy, here is where I’m going to put it: (See what I mean about being left babbling incoherently by this novel?) Vera is clever—more than that, she’s funny. Even when she’s pissed off and bad things are happening to her, she can zero in on the absurdity of all the self-important and cruel people in her life, and on the hypocrisy she sees in the adults trying to mold her while nowhere near done dealing with their own demons.
As I worked my way to maybe the quarter point or the third-of-the-way-through point, I was thinking I should mention this to my agent as a possibly good comp title for Vanishing Act: it’s predominantly a work of realism with a major emotional throughline, but it also features a supernatural element understated enough that you could wonder if it was a figment of the protagonist’s imagination. (It’s definitely for older teens than my book, though.) But as I closed in on the end of the book, I was devastated and inspired by the sheer magnitude of what the protagonist had to deal with.
And here’s where I start to doubt my ability to do Please Ignore Vera Dietz justice. How to tell you what it’s about, and what Vera has to deal with? Well let me punt a bit and begin by quoting from the description at Indiebound.org:
Vera’s spent her whole life secretly in love with her best friend, Charlie Kahn. And over the years she’s kept a lot of his secrets. Even after he betrayed her. Even after he ruined everything.
So when Charlie dies in dark circumstances, Vera knows a lot more than anyone—the kids at school, his family, even the police. But will she emerge to clear his name? Does she even want to?
When I first picked up Please Ignore Vera Dietz, it sounded reasonably interesting, but this blurb doesn’t begin to do justice to the emotional journey King takes her readers on. There are a fair number of YA novels already out there that hinge on unearthing what happened That One Fateful Night. That’s the structure of this book too, but it’s about so much more than that.
For me, (surprisingly) more powerful than learning what happened to Charlie Kahn was watching Vera and her father work through the damage caused to their lives when Vera’s mother left them. Watching Vera’s father move past his lifelong feelings of inadequacy and feeling unloved. (When was the last time a YA book showed you not only a teenager’s emotional journey, but an adult’s too?) Watching Vera figure out that not living out your “genetic destiny” isn’t about a checklist of superficial Thou-Shalt-Nots but about believing in your own worth and doing what you know is right even when it’s hard. Watching her learn that the adults that love her aren’t hypocritical, they’re flawed.
Hmm. I think this is what’s reduced me to a puddle: This is a book about flawed people getting better.
[Sounding heavy again, so let me remind you: This book is often funny. This book also portrays teenagers like they are, not like some parent’s wish of what teens were like.]
This is also a book about—to steal a phrase from the novel itself—dealing with the baggage other people may have packed for you. I’ve spent years telling anybody who would listen that Ordinary People saved my life. I have no doubt that Please Ignore Vera Dietz will do the same for somebody else, if it hasn’t already.
That said, this book might not be for everybody. There’s a lot that’s triggery here. Offstage pedophilia. Bad things happening to an unspecified number of animals. And, of course, teen death. The sorts of things some misguided parents or educators might want to pretend their teens don’t need to know about, yes, but also something that could be a trigger for a kid (or adult) who’s already had some rough experiences. (Or it could be cathartic, like it was for me. I don’t know.)
I do also have some quibbles. The portrayal of high school—specifically what classes high school seniors are enrolled in and what books they’re assigned—didn’t quite ring true. Jenny Flick also struck me as a bit, um, extreme. But then, really bad shit really does happen in real life, so maybe I’m the naive one for thinking she was over the top. Finally, I wondered if the contents of the cigar box, at the end of the day, really counted much as evidence in the legal sense. They seemed to amount to merely one kid’s side of the story, unless I missed something.
But my reaction to this story was centered not on these details but on the emotional journey. Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a moving, powerful book. I wish I had the reach to put a copy in the hands of everybody who happens to read this blog; two copies, actually—one for you and one to share. Failing that, I wish I knew how to be convincing enough when I say this: you should read this book. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will want to be a better person. And you will value the flawed people in your life that love you and are loved by you in return.