Review published on June 10, 2016.
Every so often a book comes along that has the power to speak acutely not only to an individual but to a wider audience, summing up their experiences and feelings so accurately as to be a lifeline, an expression of mutual understanding and a manifesto of acceptance. Matthew Quick’s Every Exquisite Thing is one such book. It has the feel of a great American coming-of-age classic about it – a To Kill a Mockingbird or A Catcher in the Rye – and is a welcoming call to the outsiders, both those forced to the outside by the bullies, extroverts and ringleaders, and those who take refuge in the outside by choice.
Eighteen-year-old Nanette has her future all mapped out for her and is on track to earn a sports scholarship to the university of her choice. But it’s not what she wants to do with her life, just as she doesn’t want to be part of the typical high-school experience. Instead she spends her lunchtimes chatting to her English teacher, and it is his introduction to her of an out-of-print cult classic, The Bubblegum Reaper, that is the catalyst for both stirring Nanette’s rebellious spirit and leading her to fellow outsider Alex.
On the surface Every Exquisite Thing seems something of a standard coming-of-age novel but there’s absolutely nothing standard about this book. It is to, borrow from the title, exquisite. There are no predictable clichés or easy happy ever afters here, Nanette’s journey is difficult and painful. Her relationship with Alex, much like the boy himself, is magnificent and tortured. And Quick delivers it all with incredible insight and depth. The quality of the writing is superb, both on an emotional and philosophical level but also a technical level. Indeed, not only is Quick a superb character author and storyteller but also, as he proves in this novel, a poet, including several poems he ascribes to Alex that beautifully render the teen’s predicament and state of mind. And what is brilliant about the poems is that they are not merely there in order for Quick to show off or exorcise his inner poet but because they genuinely add to the narrative and in particular help to understand Alex.
If I’m being greedy, I would have loved to have seen even more of these included in the novel, even in an appendix at the end. My only other gripe with the book was the shift from Nanette’s first person to third person narration in the second half of the novel. Although this is fully explained and again fits in with the narrative, it can get a bit grating. But the power of this novel is in the overall experience more than the sum of its parts.
Fittingly, it is a book, too, that considers the power of the written word, and specifically the power of interpretation and misinterpretation. At the heart of the book is the fictional novel The Bubblegum Reaper which Nanette gives a potted summary of that makes you wonder whether this may have once been one of Quick’s works in progress. And what I loved was the layers to the novel: at the start of the story Quick’s reader is reading a book about a character reading a book that, like Every Exquisite Thing, is edgy, thought-provoking and powerful. So Quick parallels the reader’s experience with Nanette and Alex’s.
Whilst The Bubblegum Reaper is a figment of Quick’s imagination, the novel is scattered with literary references – creating a sort of accompanying reading list: the poems of Bukowski and Larkin, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Antigone etc. It’s a lovely way in to exploring the characters and the novel’s context even more.
For those who really connect with the plight of Nanette and Alex and understand their predicaments, this is a truly exceptional novel, but even for the average reader, I expect this book will be an experience. Although it features characters in their late teens and is being promoted as a YA read, I actually think this one has a slightly older feel to it and so don’t be put off by the YA label. As well as working on an individual level, this is also one of those books that works equally as well as a group read, offering up plenty of avenues for discussion. Profound, bold and rebellious, Every Exquisite Thing is a book for all time.
Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick
Headline 978-1472229540 hbk May 2016
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy, Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. .”
SECOND OPINION: Ruby by Cynthia Bond – Baileys Shortlist 2016
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