Tuesday, September 6, 2011

review : clara in washington

Clara in Washington, Penny Tangey (UQP)

When Loving Richard Feynman was released in 2009 it was really exciting to discover a new, vibrant YA voice. LRF, shortlisted in the CBC older readers category, is about family, friendship and disillusionment. The protagonist Catherine was smart and set herself apart from the gang - she's aloof, kooky and hilariously, humanly flawed.

Clara in Washington is a fabulous follow-up. Clara has decided to spend the summer holidays after finishing Year 12 in wintery Washington DC with her mum - by way of escaping a certain someone back home and trying to avoid thinking and talking about her exam results and university choices.

Clara is terrified to leave the apartment at first, imagining muggings and terrorist attacks, people not understanding her. But faced with looking like she's not having a good time to friends back home, Clara soon finds herself volunteering with a number of organisations and charities (so she can post "put my name down to volunteer at a homeless women's shelter" on her facebook and feel a little bit superior) and visiting monuments and museums galore, as well as falling in with a group of anarchists. She's not a Rah-Rah-Rah do-gooder, but doing some good might do her good.

Clara is very smart, but she's book smart. Not savvy, not confident and not even very nice sometimes. She cuts herself off from her friends, stops replying to emails and, when results come out, refuses to look up her score. But in spite of her defences the reader can tell she wants to make connections. In discussions with friends about Clara it's been suggested she's "passive", that she just lets things happen to her. She's on the lazy size, with crippling anxiety about getting things wrong (to the extent that it is a little annoying) and a bit of a know-it-all. But! It didn't take me long to feel for Clara, or to sympathise with her and I think she comes across as a very realistic character - and, within her own parametres, pretty brave.

As well as being a personal journey, and something of a romance, Clara in Washington also explores politics, government and social justice. Learning to think for oneself, while also listening to what others have to say - is this the very definition of coming-of-age?

Penny Tangey has peopled her novel with a cast of interesting characters - the slightly crazy ladies at the shelter are just gorgous - and it was great to watch (read?) Clara interact with all the different people she meets and gets to know, and see how they help her settle into Washington, how they help her make the most of this opportunity. If you'd like to, you can imagine the anarchists Campbell and Eric like this:

Clara in Washington is laugh out loud funny. Clara's dry sense of humour and almost manic paranoia amused one greatly.

Read My Girl Friday's review.
Read the Fancy Goods review here.


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