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After by Francine Prose

Francine Prose's After is a book that I first purchased as part of a set of silent reading books for my classroom, partially because it was lauded as a great in teen fiction, and partially because I was really aiming for books I thought my boys would be interested in, because teenaged boys are notoriously resistant to reading. Set at the fictional Central High School in Massachusetts, After chronicles the changes made to life at Central after a neighboring school is victim of a tragic school shooting. Protagonist Tom Bishop and his best friends (fellow "Smart Jock" basketball players Avery, Brian, and Silas) first dismiss their new school policies as temporary and futile, but as time passes, it becomes clear that nothing is as easily dismissed as it first seemed.

Several of my students, mostly boys, read and enjoyed this book, but I had yet to pick it up. thewlisian_afer, however, read it recently, and urged me to do the same, so I picked it up. I like adolescent literature, though recently I've drifted from it, and stories about boys (or men) tend to hold my interest longer than stories about females. I can't say I was disappointed, given that I read it in two school days.

After, as a the parable it intends to be, is not half bad. The idea of sacrificing freedom for the "greater good" is a writer's wet dream, especially in the wake of tragedies such as Columbine, September 11th, and Virginia Tech. Setting the story in a high school allows Prose to shock the reader more than it would if she were to set up a full-on distopian society; the arbitrary nature of the "rules" seem harsher and sharper in a setting that is, inherently, meant to support freedom, intellectual curiosity, and growth. Building up the characters feels natural, and Tom and his friends are generally quite likable, no whiny, immature Winston Smiths present to be guided by the hand into anarchy by loose women. (But my thoughts on 1984 are for another time.)

That said, I never felt completely satisfied by the story, and I think the blame rests mostly on the world and characters Prose has penned. Tom feels inconsistent as a character, sometimes being charming, bright, and aware, and other times launching into full-on teen mode that seems to undercut who he was ten pages earlier. But perhaps more unforgivably, the last forty-odd pages suffer from "Rush For The Finish" disease, as though Prose was afraid to hit anything beyond page 320. Ideas like Operation Turnaround and further penalties from the school are planted but neither watered or seeded, leaving the reader with a question-filled ending that doesn't have the satisfaction of "The Lady or the Tiger"; instead of leaving us thirsty to discuss what the real ending is, I just felt dried-out.

I understand that this is meant to be speculative, a great "what-if" for teenagers to sink their teeth into, but I felt a few times like Prose was undercutting the intelligence of the students who would pick it up, starting threads that never quite got woven into the whole tapestry, and would love to see what this book could have become were all the thoughts just a little more finished.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 30th, 2008 01:38 am (UTC)
"Rush For The Finish" disease

Ahhhh, I think that might've been the thing I had an issue with and couldn't quite put my finger on.
Apr. 30th, 2008 02:09 am (UTC)
It snuck up on me pretty well, but by the last chapter I really felt like things were being tied up without actually, well, closing off the story. The ending left me really annoyed, especially, because they just...leave, and the other kids go with them, just like that. It ended up being weird for me.
Apr. 30th, 2008 02:17 am (UTC)
See, I liked the way it ended because that's how I write. I like finding a place to break off without actually ending the story. I want people to keep thinking about it afterward. But you still can't rush to that breaking point, or it sucks.
Apr. 30th, 2008 02:59 am (UTC)
Oh, I love an open-ended story, but it needs to feel like the open-endedness fits with the story. This felt like it was pushed there without enough extra buttresses holding it up. Another 20-30 pages to sort of hold the ending up? It would have worked. Otherwise, it really just felt like it was broken off, not that it was always heading for that logical conclusion.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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