Wednesday, December 30, 2009

'Viola in Reel Life' is a Young Adult Hit for Novelist Adriana Trigiani

You know it's been a good book when you find yourself marking passages that just seem to speak to you. It was that way with Adriana Trigiani's latest novel, Viola in Reel Life. Although the book is Trigiani's first foray into the young adult literary world, she either had some good YA editors or a good head for what should be included in a young adult story because this book is an excellent example of the genre.

Viola, the main character, is 14-almost-15 (as she describes herself) and far from her native Brooklyn. Her documentary-making parents have gone on assignment to Afghanistan to film a piece on Afghan women, and Viola is forced to attend a year at the Prefect Academy for Girls. PA is a boarding school in South Bend Indiana, and to Viola it might as well be Timbuktu. She is a fish out of water without her best friends, her family, and her home setting. Viola's one passion is filming, and through her camera she begins to understand her new world and to fit into it.

Trigiani hits the nail on the head with her eye for adolescent fashion ("I go to my dresser and pull out a pair of cigarette jeans, a Bob Marley t-shirt, a sky-blue bandanna folded thick around my neck, and my jean jacket, because it's cold in here. I jump into my clothes, slip into my yellow patent leather flats, and grab my backpack" (47).), and manages to seem technologically up-to-date (Viola does a lot of IM-ing and text messaging) without going overboard and ruining the storyline or character development. Viola and her roommates show a fair amount of teen angst -- over homesickness, boys, family problems, and fitting in -- but each tear seems appropriate rather than overly dramatic. Trigiana knows teenage girls, but somehow gets her reader (in this case, a 28-year-old female -- not a teen) to find empathy in the characters and not annoyance.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the book are the slightly skewed ideas of the young female characters, especially their views on boy-girl relationships. Viola gives her (and her roommates') opinion on a boy she meets at a neighboring school:

It's like some miracle. I didn't see this (a real boyfriend) happening to me for years. I thought most boys were dorks (can provide a list) or unrealistic reaches (Tag Nachmanoff) or strictly pals (Andrew Bozelli) but Jared Spencer doesn't fit on any of those lists. He's cute, he's smart, and he's into the exact same things I am. The current status of Jared and me (us) gives me a warm feeling -- like I belong somewhere -- even though I only have one night of talking, one full moon, and three kisses to go on. The rest I'm filling in from instant messages, pictures, and emails. I'm getting to know him, but as far as our quad is concerned, it's already a done deal -- I officially have a boyfriend. (184)
Trigiani's attention to the teenage, female voice is uncanny. Viola and her friends sound like real teenage girls riding on a bus beside you or walking in front of you at the mall. In another Jared-filled paragraph, Viola matter-of-factly explains that "as of December 9, 2009, I'm in a holding pattern of four kisses, one hand-holding, one date, one cookie, and one book. The IMs and texts are at, like, a record-breaking number at this point" (205). She goes on to clarify that while all of this is "perfectly great" (205), she's also learned "with the guidance of Suzanne [her 14-year-old roommate], to never count on much when it comes to boys, because then you will not be disappointed. So far, that's become the backbone of my romantic philosophy" (205).

Adriana Trigiani has had much success as a novelist, following a television-writing career in which she wrote for hits such as The Cosby Show and A Different World. I own every book she's ever written, including the beloved Big Stone Gap series, Lucia, Lucia, Rococo, Queen of the Big Time, and the Valentine series (the second in that series will be published in February 2010).

In order to give full disclosure, I must admit that I have met Trigiani and may possibly be slightly persuaded to like her novels due to her wonderful personality and good taste... I met the author at the Southern Festival of Books in 2005 when it was in Memphis, rather than Nashville. As I stood to ask Trigiani a question (couldn't tell you if I tried what it was about), she interrupted me with screams for the audience to turn around and look at me. As they did, she screeched, "Oh my GOSH!! Doesn't she look EXACTLY like Cate Blanchett?? Look at her!!" This was a huge compliment, and also embarrassing -- my face turned ten shades of red -- but has endeared her to me forever. At the meet-and-greet, there was talk of a movie being made based on the Big Stone Gap books; my mother told Trigiani that I would be much cheaper to play the role than the actual Cate Blanchett... To her credit, Trigiani laughed and didn't say anything mean. So -- great author, and great person. (And truthfully, I would like the books regardless of some years-old compliment the author paid me!)

Hear a discussion of the author discussing the novel:

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