CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 27. . . .March 18, 2016
And so Calvin opens……..It was with great anticipation that I turned the first page of Martine Leavitt’s new novel, Calvin. After all, I thoroughly enjoyed her previous novel, the poignantly poetic My Book of Life by Angel. Alas, while the reader can admire Leavitt’s attempt to depict teenage schizophrenia and applaud her ability to work (when one examines her entire oeuvre) within a variety of genres (fantasy, realism, verse novel), the novel represents only a limited success.
The novel’s premise hints at promise: title character Calvin lives in Leamington, ON, and decides he must embark on a quest across Lake Erie in order to meet with Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes. His friend and neighbour, Susie McLean, accompanies him, and they fall in love. Their love, a sharp flash of lightning on a dark, dreary day, brightens the novel and illuminates some of its themes, but the novel is not primarily a love story; instead, it is a depiction of a teenager with schizophrenia who sees an imaginary tiger (“Hobbes”) and is fixated on meeting its creator, Bill Watterson.
By turning to a passage in the novel, one from roughly the middle of the novel, one can easily see both the strengths and weaknesses of the novel:
To start, one must ask the following: why is the novel written in this manner, a quasi-dramatic mode, like a play? Sure, it leads to the novel being easier to read. Is it somehow a commentary on the theme of schizophrenia, as if people having this disorder would imagine themselves as characters in a drama? Is it so that we can picture “voices in their head”? If so, it is unclear. However, just when one may have decided that the novel is not a success, Leavitt hits you with the achingly beautiful description of Suzie.
At times, the novel also tries to be educational about schizophrenia –“people who have schizophrenia ….don’t know where the thoughts are coming from, so it feels like someone is putting thoughts in our heads, or someone is reading our minds” (p. 84) -- but it only flirts with this educational impulse and is not effective. Indeed, perhaps it is the mixed mode of the novel, the fact that it seems to be a bit of everything, that dooms the work to be not much of anything. A flash of lightning (the love between Calvin and Susie), a few minutes of a lecture (the facts about schizophrenia), and a failed quest, that most archetypal of journeys, do not amount to a unified novel. Some teen readers may enjoy this novel, but its potential is never fully realized.
Recommended with Reservations.
Adam C. Hunt is a teacher-librarian who lives in Kingston, ON, teaches in Belleville at Centennial Secondary School.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.