Laura Demanski's review of Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune is an admirable example of what might be called the "fair negative" review. Demanski concludes that the book is "a disappointment despite all of its promising elements and McKenzie's obvious talent," but she also patiently describes what McKenzie seems to be attemping in the novel, arriving at her ultimately negative assessment only after showing that, in the reviewer's opinion, the execution of the author's purpose comes up short.
Early in the review, Demanski writes:
. . .The nine stories that make up "Stop That Girl" cover Ann Ransom's life from age 7 until she's a 20-something mother. But we stop and look in on her only every couple of years, and a lot more happens offstage than on.
It's an unconventional method that may leave completists unsatisfied. In the typical bildungsroman, we closely follow the major events of a young person's life and see how they form the adult she becomes. The success of that kind of novel depends in part on how convincingly the results follow from the causes. McKenzie's method shoots for different effects and delivers different pleasures. When the reader doesn't know everything--not even close to everything--mystery and surprise are added to the mix.
From this description we understand that McKenzie is writing a variation of the "bildungsroman" (the coming-of-age novel), and that she is taking something of a risk in experimenting with the form. McKenzie's reader is going to be asked to read between the lines--or more precisely, between the stories--and make connections that in most such fictions are made more explicitly by the author him/herself. This provides what Demanski calls "breathing room," but obviously it would require some deftness on the writer's part to keep the reader interested after the more conventional strategy has been abandoned.
And it is precisely the writer's skill in maintaining the form she's adopted that is the basis of Demanski's subsequent judgment of this "novel in stories." She hasn't insisted that, in effect, the author should have written a different kind of book, merely that the results achieved do not really measure up to what seems to have been the writer's ambition.
Even so, Demanski's judgments are judiciously expressed:
What's left out between these stories isn't a problem; what's left out in them, however, sometimes is. McKenzie's deadpan, minimalist narration is well-suited to conveying Ann's chronic disenchantment with life; but over the course of the book it comes to feel stingy, shrunken and empty. To some degree this is a built-in problem with writing about disillusion and disenchantment: How does one represent them in one's characters without reproducing them in one's readers? McKenzie doesn't find a solution.
She also describes a selected number of stories from the book, giving the reader an opportunity, ultimately, to compare his/his own impression of them, and their relative degree of success, to the reviewer's. Or at least giving the reader some confidence that the reviewer has read the book carefully and has attempted to ground her evaluation in specific examples from the text.
Where one might question Demanski's evaluation is in a passage like this one:
The standard novel about growing up tells a protracted tale of learning and gradual loss of innocence. Ann, however, experiences disillusionment so young--in the first story--that the usual tale is moot. Beyond a point that comes especially early for her, Ann is incapable of being truly thrown by life, or truly moved by it. What, then, remains to be narrated? Neither Ann nor McKenzie seem to know for sure; there's a fair amount of floundering on both sides.
It seems to me possible for the reader to accept this early disillusionment and to want to read the rest of the book anyway, not as the story of the protagonist's disillusionment per se but as the account of how she subsequently manages to deal with it or not--as the "narrative" of how innocence lost affects a human life that nevertheless continues on. Perhaps McKenzie does "flounder" in her effort to carry this out, but one wonders whether Demanski isn't finally missing something in the book, after all.
Still, I am actually more inclined to read Stop That Girl than I was before reading the review, the reviewer's qualified negative assessment notwithstanding. If nothing else, I would like to determine for myself whether Demanski's view of the possibilities of the modified bildungsroman is a sound one or not. Finally, Demanski has both convinced me that she has taken her responsibilities as a reviewer seriously, and that her conclusions are worth testing in a kind of reviewer-reader dialectic. In my opinion, this means the reviewer has not only decidedly earned her pay (meager as it probably was), but also my gratitude as her reader.