Title: Dying to Know You
Author: Aidan Chambers
Genre: Realistic Fiction/YA
Number of Pages: 288
One of the first things that caught my attention about this book is the striking cover art, even though after reading it I’m not sure how the photo on the cover has anything to do with the story. As soon as I started reading, it immediately seemed weird to me that the author chose a older man for the narrator despite the book itself being marketed for young adults. Since the unnamed widower who narrates the story provides a lot of ‘telling, not showing’ type prose and he does an unusual amount of philosophizing over pretty much everything, I’m not sure how much Dying to Know You will appeal to teenagers.
Aside from that, the novel’s set-up is pretty clever and interesting; the main character decides to help a teenage boy win the girl of his dreams through letter-writing. Karl, the seventeen-year-old boy, has been seeing a girl named Fiorella who wants to bare his heart to her through written correspondence, but Karl is dyslexic and even though he’s very intelligent he writes like a child. Incidentally, the older man is Fiorella’s favorite writer, so Karl stops by his house and enlists his help.
The author, depressed and somewhat reclusive since his wife died, sees a startling amount of himself in Karl and becomes continually fascinated with his struggles. Dying to Know You is partially about overcoming learning disabilities while not letting people belittle you or break you down, but more than that it’s about the act of creating and finding the strength to embrace your passion and stick with it despite your second guesses and doubts. I get the feeling that this was a very personal project for the author and that he put a lot of himself into it, and I think he included a lot of good observations, particularly about human nature and the creative process. I often found myself having an issue with the confusing lack of dialogue tags, but the biggest problem I had with this book wasn’t of a technical nature.
There was one plot element that really bothered me and ultimately made me enjoy the story less than I would otherwise, and that was whole thing with Karl and Fiorella going on the camping trip. The author who’s helping Karl finds out that the two teenagers had a big falling-out right after their outing and later Fiorella tells him Karl became extremely forceful with her (almost to the point of sexual assault) and even though he backed off she got really upset and insisted on leaving. The plot point itself wasn’t really the problem; it’s more that Karl isn’t portrayed as really being in the wrong for his behavior towards Fiorella. Instead he’s portrayed as having an emotional breakdown that led to a temporary lapse in judgement, but the fact he got close to raping his crying, struggling girlfriend isn’t portrayed as that big a deal.
The way the whole thing is handled made me lose a lot of respect for both the male main characters (especially Karl) and left a bad taste in my mouth. Otherwise I think this novel is well-written and has a good story; the relationships are for the most part both interesting and believable. The author and Karl’s friendship was the heart of the story and it’s nice to see a portrayal of an appropriate, meaningful relationship between a teenager and an older adult. It’s also a compassionate, hopeful portrayal of learning disabilities for young people who might be dealing with something similar.
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