Friday, April 17, 2009

Review of Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman; Putnam Juvenile, 2006.

True confession: I bought this book because the cover said that Stephenie Meyer recommended it. It was only $3 in the bargain section at Books-A-Million (my very favorite bargain section- Sorry, indie book stores!), so I might have purchased it anyway... but Meyer's name was a clincher. I was expecting a cute, fluffy teen romance that would make for a good hour or two of reading, and Enthusiasm definitely delivered-- and then some.

This story centers on a very basic idea: two girls (Julia and Ashleigh), the best of friends, fall for the same handsome boy (Grandison Parr). Shulman builds on this idea by adding many allusions to classic literature, especially Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. For example, when Julia and Parr first meet, their conversation creates a sonnet, just like Romeo and Juliet's first conversation (as Julia's teacher explained earlier in the novel). As an Austenite myself, I loved looking for little pieces of Jane's novels and references to her characters. Julia wonders if a classmate of Parr's is a "W____" (Austen fans will immediately know WHICH "W"), and Julia and Ashleigh refer to boys as "Darcys" or "Bingeleys". I will concede this may annoy readers unfamiliar with Austen's heroes, but I found it quite funny. It made me smile, and I needed a smile! Also, Shulman doesn't keep the plot on a traditional trajectory and have the girls fight over Parr. In fact, Julia selflessly avoids him and focuses on herself, which was refreshing to read in a teen romance.

Shulman's dialogue is witty and natural, and the voice of her teen characters and adults is well-developed. Character development was equally well-done; she manages to create secondary characters who are not simply flat caricatures. Sam and Zack Liu, Julia's mother, and Julia's stepmother (the "Irresistible Accountant") are all treasures.

Although Enthusiasm is far from grandiose, it is well-written and enjoyable and would make a great addition to a classroom library.

Classroom Applications

This novel would be most appropriate for students in grades 7-10, particularly females. I don't want to stereotype any of the young men out there, but I don't know any young men personally to whom I would recommend this novel. Although it is a romance, the focus is on the development of an intellectual relationship between a boy and girl and a friendship between two young ladies, so I would feel comfortable using this as a book club/lit circles novel in the classroom. The frequent use of literary allusions makes this even more of a classroom-ready novel.

Literary Devices to teach: allusion, flat/round characters, irony, dramatic irony/unreliable narrator, foils

Themes/Topics: the different types of friendships and romantic relationships, family relationships (especially daughters and mothers/stepmothers), the search for identity, sacrifice

Extension Questions

1) Why does Julia remain silent when Ashleigh tells her that Ned is her "Bingeley"? What does this reveal about her as a person?
2) Do you think Ashleigh will "grow out of" her habit of having different obsessions? Explain.
3) Explain why Julia calls her stepmother, Amy, the "Irresistible Accountant." What role does Amy play in the story? How is she similar to/different from Julia's mother?
4) What was your reaction to Shulman's inclusion of references to Austen and Shakespeare? Did you like it, find it annoying, or not really care either way?
5) People have some very different opinions of Jane Austen: Mark Twain remarked that her books made him want to "beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone," but former Chief Justice John Marshall said "she is pleasing, interesting, equable, yet amusing." J.K. Rowling says Jane is her favorite author. Based on these opinions, how do you think people will feel about Enthusiasm?

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