Author: Cal Armistead
Release date: March 1st 2013
Publisher: A. Whitman Teen
Hardcover, 270 pages
Source: Publisher for review
Buy: The Book Depository
I will now tell you bad, bad things about this book. If you’re uncomfortable with me telling you such things, you’d best look away ‘cause it’s about to start. Consider yourselves warned.
Being Henry David is a very ambitious project. I believe it was supposed to be a deep, cathartic experience, a heart-wrenching story about a young man unable to face the consequences of his actions. At least I think that’s what Cal Armistead set out to write. What she actually wrote, in my humble opinion, is an aimless novel with no real emotion or depth.
I always try to balance things out in my negative reviews and I don’t particularly enjoy being this harsh, especially when writing about a debut work, but after careful consideration, I’ve decided it’s best to be painfully honest and let you come to your own conclusions.
A boy wakes up at the New York Penn Station with no memories and no possessions whatsoever. The only thing he has on him is a book, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and he decides it’s some kind of a clue. He names himself Henry David, Hank, and starts hanging out with two street kids, Jack and Nessa. After an incident that could put them all in jail, Hank leaves New York to go to Concord, Massachusetts where he wants to explore Walden Pond and Thoreau’s way of life.
I consider telling the cops that I’m lost, and can’t remember who I am. Maybe they can help me. But there’s that thing in my chest like a brick wall that says this would be a terrible idea. Some fuzzy instinct tells me it’s not safe to go to the police. Fuzzy instinct isn’t much to go on, but it’s all I have. I decide to trust it.
Apparently, it has become very popular to write novels that lean heavily on another novel or author, usually a classic. (How very postmodern of you, Ms. Armistead!) In this case, Henry David Thoreau was on every page, both through his work and his life. Hank dreamed about him, hallucinated him, followed his movements, and thanks to his photographic memory, he quoted him at every turn. There were, at times, more H.D. Thoreau quotes than actual text and they swallowed this story whole and suffocated it in the process.
The romance, slight as it was, felt almost like an afterthought, added somewhere along the line because some editor said so. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think it was there from the start. That entire subplot was this book’s weakest link, unnecessary, unconvincing and maybe even a bit silly. I’ve seen this so many times, almost every time a female author writes from a male perspective about a female love interest. It just doesn’t click.
Being Henry David offers no closure, no real resolution. Quite a few secondary characters are left right in the middle of a very dire situation, without so much as a hint about their fate. Instead of a proper ending, a strange, dream-like scene concludes the book, all wrapped up in far too many Thoreau quotes, of course. It’s a pity, really, because Cal Armistead is not an untalented author. She has a wonderful understanding of her characters, but she mostly just lets them wander around aimlessly.
Better luck next time, I guess. For all of us.