review by Tessa
Tessa – starts the year out lucky, but the year’s events don’t follow this pattern.
Lulu – Tessa’s younger sister who seems to have nicer everything
Celina – Tessa’s best friend and a champion flirt
Charlie – Tessa’s crush, but he likes someone else very close to Tessa.
Jasper – Loner boy who hangs out in the woods. Strangely attractive. Not that Tessa would admit it.
The carnival comes to town and after that night Tessa becomes a freak. Is it all in her head? How can she stop everyone from turning to stone?
Worldview + What is this book’s intention and does it live up to that intention?
Tessa is forced to take Lulu along with her to the yearly fall carnival. She and Celina were supposed to spend all night sharing secrets and chasing boys – especially the pack of boys led by Charlie Evans. The girls still fall in with these desirables despite Tessa’s little sister in tow. In an attempt to isolate herself with Charlie, Tessa suggests visiting the Curiosity Sideshow, where only two people are allowed in at a time. But Charlie gets in with Lulu as a partner. After that, Tessa’s world is thrown off balance. She loves Lulu, but Lulu is eclipsing her in what feels like all aspects of her life – looks, boys, best friendship with Celina, and parental attention.
“Sometimes Tessa wished that she was the prettier sister. When Tessa looked at Lulu, she wondered why it was that Lulu got the better nose. The nicer legs. The shinier, straighter hair. Tessa worried sometimes that people felt sorry for her because she was not round-face, but made of angles. She dread that the truth might be that the arrangement of DNA hadn’t worked quite right on her parents’ first try for a baby, and she imagined that the combination of sperm and egg had worked better the second time around. Or worse, that maybe her parents had loved each other more when they had made Lulu.”
Before I got to buy and read this book I asked what my co-worker’s teenaged daughter thought of it. “She was afraid it was going to be about, you know, boys and does he like me, but it was more than that,” was her paraphrased answer (in a wonderful South African accent). Boys and Does he like me are Tessa’s focus as the book begins. Then, as her hopeful plans go awry and she’s left with regret and stifled jealousy, The Year of the Beasts reveals its true self. It’s about that creeping feeling when everything is going wrong and crumbling and no one else seems to notice. When you don’t feel like you legitimately have anything to complain about but still feel like crying all the time and are composing whole perfect wounded rants in your head to say to no one.
Though not told in first person, the book achieves a wobbly reality in line with how Tessa must feel. It alternates prose and comic chapters that, when read together, perfectly describe something that is part reality and part gritty parable.
Castellucci’s prose style is matter-of-fact about things and straightforwardly narrates situations that still end up with secret undertones. It delves into lists of things that end up carrying emotional weight or revealing the thoughts of the characters who are looking at the things being listed. Its tone reminded me of fairy tales, especially the breezy Californian real world with a twist voice of Francesca Lia Block, where everyone possesses a kind of knowing, but everything remains mysterious despite it. I can see it very much in this description from Beasts:
“Jasper Kleine . . . wasn’t with anyone because he was a loner. If he did hang out, he hung out with other lost boys. The ones who cut class and got high. The ones who rode their speedboats too fast on the river. The ones who had guitars and mountain bikes. The ones who wore pieces of leather tied around their wrists as if they had made a secret promise to themselves. These boys were the ones that everyone steered clear of because secretly everyone worried that strangeness was catching.”
The comic chapters are illustrated by the wonderful Nate Powell, who is no stranger to stories featuring people haunted by their own thoughts and obsessions. My first introduction to his work was Swallow Me Whole, a graphic novel about stepsiblings, schizophrenia, and family, among other things, and his most recent book, Any Empire, delves further into childhood and its wars and then twists time to connect real war with childhood. He draws with a fluid and sure line that always seems to imbue his characters with motion, even when they’re sitting at a desk or standing in a hallway. (There’s a gallery on his website).
In The Year of the Beasts he illustrates what appears to be a parallel story of Tessa’s, one where her hair is Medusa’s: made of snakes that can turn anyone who looks at her to stone. She stumbles through a school day trying to keep herself and the people around her intact, clearly hurting but not able to make herself tell her secrets. In this reality, her sister appears as a mermaid and her crush a kind of minotaur. It’s not clear how this connects to the prose reality until the close of the book, but it lets the reader follow emotional truths in a natural and evocative way. (Click on the link above to see previews).
What The Year of the Beasts has most in common with old fairy tales is that it goes to twisty, dark places. It also has something in common with fables: Tessa learns a lesson at the end. It’s not the one that I was expecting when I saw her cobbling together a secretive happiness midway through the book, and I’m not happy that she had to learn it the way she did. But that’s her story, whether I like it or not, and it’s told beautifully.
I met Cecil Castellucci at a library event in 2006 or 2007 and she was really psyched to hear my name. So psyched that she wrote it down and promised to use it in a story. I’m not saying that this means that moment led to her naming this character Tessa. But I am going to choose to believe it for my own personal satisfaction about… having… a name?
Incidentally, Cecil Castellucci is funny and nice and really enthusiastic about comics. You should read her other books.
Weetzie Bat series / Francesca Lia Block
I’m feeling a lot of Witch Baby in Tessa’s character.
Lowboy / John Wray
I don’t know if this is a real readalike. It does concern a teenager who feels lost and isolated and has a personal crisis. Maybe I just want to read it again. But it came to mind, and it has a great cover with a drawing of a face.
I could swear that Rebecca had recommended this book before, but I can’t find it. I’ll recommend it any number of times, just try me. Loss, friendship, and outsider status, set in a private school, which is a cousin to a boarding school. You know that we like those here at Crunchings & Munchings.