Book Review: 'And We're Off,' By Dana SchwartzDana Schwartz is the Twitter whiz behind the @GuyInYourMFA and @DystopianYA accounts, but she stumbles in long form. Her debut novel, And We're Off, is quick and compelling but needs fleshing out.
Until now, debut author Dana Schwartz has made a compelling asset out of brevity. She's the humorist behind the popular Twitter accounts Guy In Your MFA and Dystopian YA Novel, twin platforms for perfectly crafted satire about literary pretention. The former sends up self-important, David Foster Wallace-worshiping writing students who gaze deep into their navels and see only literary symbolism and tortured, unappreciated genius. The latter parodies the tropes of derivative young-adult fiction, complete with a female protagonist caught between competing male admirers as she tries to navigate her oppressive society. To readers who've dealt with either of these archetypes, the accounts are funny because the voices are so recognizable, and Schwartz's jokes at their expense are so incisive, even at a 140-character limit.
But where concision strengthens Schwartz's humor, it limits her debut novel, And We're Off. Her young-adult story about a teenage artist's growing pains covers a lot of physical and emotional ground, but at such breakneck speed that the landscape rarely comes into focus. It's a quick, compelling read, with vividly described emotions and an intense inner landscape. (And, for longtime Schwartz fans, some Dystopian YA Novel in-jokes.) But it also feels like it's a couple of expansions short of a fully realized story, one that would fill in the space between the characters' impassioned peaks and valleys.
Schwartz's protagonist in And We're Off is 17-year-old Nora Parker-Holmes, a soon-to-be high-school senior headed for a weeklong jaunt across Europe, followed by a summer stint at Ireland's Donegal Colony for Young Artists. Like her grandfather Robert, who became a famous, museum-exhibited painter late in life, Nora is an artist. But she's afraid she lacks talent, and that others are humoring her because of her grandfather. Her mother Alice, on the other hand, doesn't humor her at all. She thinks Nora's art is a distracting, impractical hobby. Even though every blunt, hateful thing she says about Nora's art leads to a fight, she's still as unsubtle as a Disney animated villain when it comes to conversations with her daughter.
So the stage is set for drama when Alice suddenly regrets their fractured relationship, and invites herself along on Nora's European trip. Robbed of her much-anticipated taste of freedom and adulthood, Nora is understandably sullen, but oddly unresisting. There's a bitter sort of comedy in the ways Alice finds to ruin Nora's trip, but there's a deeply dysfunctional relationship there too, built around Alice's pushiness and Nora's limitations in fighting back.
Schwartz takes an unusual approach to writing Nora, who isn't always sympathetic. Her pouts and loud, performative pity-me sighs seem designed to be judged by older readers. She's impulsive and erratic, self-pitying and self-hating. In other words, she's a teenager, written from a not-always-affectionate perspective. Alice, for her part, is a bratty, self-absorbed tyrant one minute, and a hurting woman struggling with divorce and disappointment the next. It's possible to mentally connect these traits into fully formed personalities, but And We're Off rarely takes the time as it whisks briskly from one screaming crisis to the next.
The same approach holds for the book's many other subplots. Nora's summer romance with an Irish boy hits the familiar marks — party, infatuation, painful discovery — without developing any unique flavor. Her time at Donegal boils down to a few brief lessons and a fit of jealousy over a more effortlessly talented schoolmate. And her feelings of inadequacy emerge abruptly, then become a preoccupation for a book that could more profitably spend the space on deepening its relationships.
And We're Off opens with a promising specificity that the rest of the book lacks. Within the first few pages, Schwartz references Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Buzzfeed. The first chapter reveals that Nora makes side cash drawing commissioned erotic fan art of Harry Potter and Sherlock characters. It's a funny detail, but it also places her firmly in an of-the-moment world where online social communities shape young artists, and where Nora would presumably get the support her mother doesn't give her.
But past that opening chapter, Schwartz entirely drops the notion of Nora having fun with art, interacting with fans, or having social links beyond the ex she's pining for, and the best friend who's dating him. It's just one of the many ways And We're Off feels like it could have been twice the length without wearing out its welcome. Expanded and slowed down, it might have been a richer book like Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, a deeper dive into how an immature artist develops her own voice and confidence, and navigates the barriers blocking her. On Twitter, brevity is necessary. But it isn't always the best tactic for a novel.
Tasha Robinson is a culture writer at Vox Media's technology and entertainment site The Verge.