Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Happened to Lani Garver

Plum-Ucci, Carol. What Happened to Lani Garver. 2002. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, Inc., 2004. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2003)
ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults (Own Your Own Freak, 2005)

"You need to go out in the waiting room and find yourself a floating angel."
"A what?"
"They come with you on visits like these. They hold your hand and they tell you good stuff and make sense of this world so you realize it's not so bad--"
"Oh, I came with a friend. He's out there." I jerked my thumb toward the waiting room. "Thinks he's at a family reunion. Not much help."
"That's cuz he's a friend. Floating angels aren't friends; they're real angels. They're real. Didn't you see any of 'em out there?" His beaming smile flashed, and I gathered he was pulling my leg, the other option being that he was nuts. I decided to be polite and not hate myself more.
"Uh, no. What do they look like?"
"Like faggots. ... Angels don't have a gender. So what they gonna look like?"
p. 89

Because Lani Garver looks like he might be one and because he makes Claire's life, which she's losing grip on, sane, Claire thinks Lani might just be her floating angel. Unfortunately, the rest of Hackett, a small island off the Jersey Shore, sees nothing angelic about a young, clearly queer boy invading their little island. Just as Lani brings new complications to Claire's life in the midst of all the goodness, his friendship with her is his lifeline on Hackett Island, but her popular cheerleader status makes it impossible to fly under the radar the fish frat, this small island's crew of good ol' boys.

This book was hauntingly good, in my opinion. You know right from the start that something horrible is going to happen to Lani, so everything in the book feels like foreshadowing. Watching Lani and Claire hurdle toward this inevitable end is heartbreaking, even as you cheer on Lani's continual "I don't care what they think" attitude. Claire is a bit more cautious than he is. As she grows and changes over the course of the novel she cares less and less what her friends and the fish frat think of her, but she knows what they are capable of doing to Lani and herself. However, her growing sense of the injustice of it all, in combination with her new-found temper, still trips her up. The way things end up happening in the end is not how you would expect, at least it wasn't the way that I had put it together in my head.

The best thing about What Happened to Lani Garver is its honesty. For example:
I shook my head, embarrassed by my curiosity but more embarrassed by how none of this made sense to me. "We're talking about a guy with a girl, who propositions you once, and then called you a faggot. What is a person like that?"
"Do you mean, is there a clinical name for someone like that?"
"Dunno. I think they call it 'hypocritical.'"
It's an honest question, one that I'm sure more people than fictional Claire would like an answer to. Small teaching moments like this are peppered throughout the book in a natural and conversational way. Also, the language, as I'm sure you noticed in both of the quotes, makes me cringe, but, as the girlfriend pointed out, this was how we all talked in high school, before we knew it wasn't PC. The dichotomy of the way words like "faggot" are used by the fish frat and the way they are used by Lani and his friends is very striking. And though the feeling that we can say it about our own but you can't say it about us is confusing (which is true of a lot of words about a lot of groups that are considered either derogatory or familiar depending on who is saying them to whom), it appears naturally here without forced explanations of why it is or isn't okay.

My only complaint about this book are the floating angels themselves. They're made up by the author. She explains in an interview at the back of the paperback version that she didn't want to alienate any followers of a specific religion by pulling from the traditions of another. While that is awesome, the concept of floating angels is an interesting one and I wanted to know more about them, but, of course, nothing else exists.

Warning: There are three chapters worth of the bad thing that happens to Claire and Lani. It's told from Claire's perspective and she goes in and out of consciousness for a lot of it, so it doesn't end up being graphic. It is still pretty upsetting and might be downright detrimental reading for someone who has gone through this type of experience themselves.

Book source: Philly Free Library


Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

Wow! You really piqued my interest. I'm adding this to my TBR list.

Shooting Stars Mag said...

woah, this really does sound intense. nice review. i'd love to check it out at some point. i've heard about it a ton (like seen it around) but never know what it was about.


Michelle (su[shu]) said...

I know I've read this book before, probably a couple of years back. But somehow I can't seem to recall much of the story. I think one thing that did stand out for me was that Lani was never referred to as a 'he' or a 'she' in the book, so from start to finish, we never actually know what Lani's gender is. (I'm not sure if I'm mixing it up with some other book I read..)

Well anyway, thanks for the review.

Lawral the Librarian said...

Stephanie and Lauren - Thanks! I highly recommend picking this one up.

Michelle - The whole question of Lani's gender is definitely present throughout the book. His only definitive statement on the subject is something along the lines of "Not a girl." Claire refers to him in male-gendered pronouns throughout, however, so that's what stuck in my mind. But then there is the whole maybe-he's-really-a-gender-neutral-angel-instead-thing going on. It's complicated. ;)

Anonymous said...

That sounds like a really good book - definitely one for the To Be Read list (as if it weren't long enough already!). Interestingly, it sounds quite similar to the books I've read so far for the same challenge. I wonder if this is coincidence or a prevalent trend in YA GLBT literature? It would be interesting to find out.

Anyway, great review!