The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen, copyright 2009.
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Source: Personal Collection – Purchased New
Reason for Reading: Blogger Review
I am sure that this was one of those books that I added to my TBBought list after reading a glowing recommendation for it on a book blog. I can no longer remember who recommended it to me and that is probably for the best, at least for the person who recommended it.
Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet has a great life in Divide Montana. Sure, his Mom is a recluse scientist, his Dad an even quieter cowboy, his brother dead, his sister a wanna-be movie star and his dog just plain stupid, but he has all kinds of time to dedicate to his passion, cartography. You see, at twelve-years-old, T.S. is a genius when it comes to map making.
One day, while sitting on the front steps charting his sister’s corn shucking, T.S. receives an unexpected call from the Smithsonian Institute informing him that he has been awarded the prestigious Baird Award for the popular advancement of science. Now, it occurs to T.S. that the Smithsonian probably doesn’t know that he is still in Middle School and, when he is requested to come to Washington to make a speech, sees no reason to spoil the grand news by informing them of his age.
Hoping to avoid any sort of a show-down with his parents, T.S. sneaks out in the middle of the night and hops a train to D.C. Along the way he has encounters with some interesting characters, most notably a professional hobo and a crazy man espousing fire and brimstone.
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was nominated in 2009 for the Guardian First Book Award and I think, in some sense, the nomination was very much deserved. Larsen writes very well. I don’t know if I would use the word beautiful to describe his writing, but he is definitely an artist and can render some very realistic imagery. He is able to breathe life into the most mundane of details giving them an almost poetic air.
“Indeed, after a full day and a half of rail travel, the slow, uneven rocking motion had burrowed its way through my skin into the sinewy tissues around my bones, so that when the train would occasionally come to a jolting half at some spur of interchange, my whole body continued to quiver in the unexpected stillness. I marvelled at how my millions of muscle fibers had been quietly listening to the thackety-thack symphony of those rail ties, adjusting to the constant sway and lilt of the car.” The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, page 200.
As wonderful as his writing was, I think it is part of what really confused me. I initially thought that this was a young adult novel, but when I checked up on it, I found that it is actually marketed as contemporary fiction. Larsen’s writing certainly lends itself to that genre, but the details of the plot felt like they are geared towards a much younger audience. I think, though, that a younger audience would rapidly become bored with its slow pace and its plethora of technical terms. The format of the book also begs for a less mature audience, clearly the publisher did not have adults in mind when designing it; the book measures 8.5” x 9.0” and, in its paperback form, is terribly floppy. It is quite uncomfortable to hold and rather I found myself hunched over it at the table. To be honest, the feeling I was left with was that the author became confused half-way through the book and forgot who his target audience was.
Throughout the book, the main story is interrupted by lengthy passages from the journal of T.S.’s mother, which T.S. swiped before he ran-away to Washington. The journal tells the story of T.S.’s great-great-great grandmother who was a scientist in her own right. While the journal is relevant enough to the plot, it only really serves to put the brakes on the pace of an already slow story.
Further slowing the plot are the diagrams and drawings on each page that are often accompanied by text explaining the story behind them. All have been created by T.S., and are meant to help illustrate what’s going on in the story. I found these to be quite distracting, because most of the events they pertained to are not central to plot. In actual fact they are nothing more than illustrated footnotes and I stopped bothering with them about a quarter of the way through the book.
I’m being pretty hard on Reif Larsen, I understand that. I give him credit for his magnificent writing, but there is just too much wrong with this story for me to recommend it to anyone in good conscious.
RATING: Pretty Bhaaaaaad