Review: Comedy · Review: Teen Fiction

Book Review: The Poison Apples by Lily Archer

Yes…I am talking about a children’s book. An odd choice, I know. I have nothing against children’s books; a lot of my favorite books are children’s books. But those tend to be stories that are written to be appealing to children, but also appeal to an older audience. This is not one of those. This is a story about children, for children.

Okay, not prepubescent children, though I’m sure some younger children could relate to it. It’s really aimed at young teens who are struggling with family life. And this is why I decided to review it: the themes that it dives into.

Last comment before I start: this has nothing to do with Snow White. Or any other fairy tale. Snow White is the origin of the title, but in story the fairy tale is only mentioned in a vague sort of way that is clearly only referring to the Disney version. Of course, the stepmothers each have an evil fairy tale stepmother that they remind me of. These are not, however, strong enough similarities for me to say with any degree of confidence that they were deliberate references. But its flimsy fairy tale reference was why I picked up this book, and (partially) why it’s ending up on this blog.

The Plot

Three girls, Alice, Reena and Molly, of entirely different economic and social backgrounds meet at boarding school, and find that they have one thing in common: they all have evil stepmothers. They decide that if their stepmothers can be evil, then they can be evil stepdaughters.

Or so the back of the book declares.

This is a book about three girls who, through very different family situations, all end up in the situation of having a less than understanding woman for a stepmother. As they learn to deal with the situation in which they have found themselves, they all eventually wind up at boarding school. This is a story about three girls’ journeys as they discover friendship, romance and a place to belong.

Evil Stepmothers

The book is not kidding you when it says that the stepmothers are evil. Good lord, some of the devices Archer used! The most extreme example of the extent to which Archer goes to make her point is that of Reena’s stepmother’s penguin. Nope, you read that right: a penguin. Reena is the only one of the three whose parents simply got divorced because her father found someone that he loved more than her mother. This someone is a young, non-Indian woman who has a fascination with Indian things. She also, apparently, has weird fascinations with other oddly specific things, which leads to Reena’s father buying her a pet penguin, essentially bankrupting himself and rendering him in capable of financially supporting Reena’s mother, who was a housewife and is now unemployed.

The source of the “evil” is basically the same in all three stepmothers: they’re selfish and inconsiderate. Never mind whether their stepdaughter simply has different interests than they do, or is grieving a dead mother: they will have their families be exactly the way that they want, darn it! In Alice’s family, that means getting away from Alice, who can’t do anything right (and therefore shipping her off to boarding school). In Reena’s family, it means getting lots of expensive things and apparently not really caring that her partner has children at all. In Molly’s family, it means mocking Molly for her love of books, and in the same breath trying to guilt-trip her into doing some chore or living a certain way.

But they are ultimately portrayed as human. This is, in a way, supposed to be the crux of this book: the girls’ realization that they can’t blindly hate their stepmothers. They have their own hopes, dreams and sorrows, and for each girl there comes a moment when they want to lash out, but ultimately can’t because of the realization that their “evil” stepmothers are only human women after all. This works better in some cases than others. Alice and Molly’s stepmothers, I feel, were decently developed and rounded out. In the end, the reader has a sense for whom these women are and, despite the very short interaction time with them that is all through the eyes of their stepdaughters, the information given is enough to shape a clear(ish) picture of what they really want, and what they’re like as people.

Reena’s stepmother…not so much. But we’ll come back to that.

The Poison Apples, or the Stepdaughters

Our main characters, in order to give this book a more catchy name, eventually team up and as the group of girls victimized by evil stepmothers. Their story is less one of fixing their family lives, but more one of learning that though there are some things in life that you can’t change, you can always find a place to belong. To be honest, this is a very nice message, and one whose execution I enjoyed immensely.

The story is told in chapters that cycle through points of view: Alice, Reena, Molly, Alice, Reena, Molly… And Archer milks this device for all it’s worth. A huge part of this story is that Alice and Reena spend a good half of the book despising each other. It starts with simple misunderstandings, but ultimately each is so convinced that the other has the perfect life that it occurs to neither of them that they might have a little conversation before deciding to despise each other. Alice and Molly have misunderstandings, too, that are eventually righted when Reena convinces them to talk to each other.

Their personality types are as follows.

Alice: the beautiful daughter of celebrity writers who isn’t in the least stuck up. All she wants is for people to like her despite who her parents are, and she does absolutely everything that she can to accept her new stepmother. When, in a caricature of emotional blackmail, her stepmother gets on her case for not being more enthusiastic or supportive despite Alice’s best attempts to be so (in spite of her own unhappiness, obviously), Alice merely grins and bears it in an effort to not upset her dear father. She is the “feeler,” in that she is the emotional heart of the group, and our main protagonist.

Reena: the spoiled princess, and leader of the group. Though seemingly superficial, she actually possesses the capacity to be deeply understanding and loving. She is the doer, preferring to orchestrate ambitious plans rather than sit back and take it when life throws her lemons.

Molly: the bookworm from your average lower middle class family who’s just looking for a place to belong, where people won’t make terrible fun of her for enjoying reading the Oxford English Dictionary. She gets stuck in her own way of viewing things, like Reena, but lacks that drive to do something about it, which in a way makes hers the most frustrating story to follow. She’s not trying to be okay with it like Alice is, nor is she scheming away like Reena is. She just seethes aimlessly—and this made her the most realistic and the most relatable to me.

The Rest of the Families

Now, the biggest problem that I had with this book was the fact that while it took the time to round out the main characters, and eventually even humanized the evil stepmothers, everyone else is flat. Completely, utterly flat. Fathers who allegedly love their daughters, blind to the emotional manipulation and damage happening right before their eyes. Sisters who mock, completely refusing to understand that there is a point of view other than their own.

In a way, it makes the story more believable in that that is often how things work—not just in families, but in life. But none of these characters are fleshed out at all. They just are, serving to illustrate a point but not accomplishing.

If you’re wondering what point flat characters could serve in a story like this, it’s the same as they serve in any story: they either pad the cast by providing filler characters, or serve as personalities to compliment the main characters in some way. In one case, a brother of one main character even serves as the good-looking, oblivious crush for one of the others.

Which brings me to…

The Romantic Interests

Because each of these three girls has one romantic story arc.

For the most part, they did no harm. These storylines, contrived though they were (by which I mean that all three of the stories happen simultaneously, from meeting to pining to conclusion), served to delve into some of the girls’ mentality that would otherwise have remained unaddressed.

By which, of course, I mean Reena’s story. No, I won’t deny that I saw some new sides of Alice and Molly too, with Alice’s self-consciousness and Molly’s resignation, but Reena was really where this hit a chord for me. Alice and Molly’s romantic interests are their peers; Reena’s is their young, handsome English teacher.

Of course, when I say “young,” you have to bear in mind that he’s still a teacher, and she’s 15. The scene in which Reena imparts her feelings to him is…possibly one of the most powerful in the book. In fact, Reena is where the most psychological damage seems to have been done among these three characters. This is the scene in which she surprises even herself with the realization that even this romantic interest of her is defined by the trauma of what has happened to her home life. And to me, Reena’s humiliation and sudden self-awareness against the backdrop of her teacher’s pity was the highlight of this book. It certainly was the highlight of Reena’s personal story arc.

Analysis

This is not the best book in the world, by a long shot. As I said in the beginning, it is about children, for children. It has its compelling moments, and the moments when it rings true, but these moments have little or no depth to them. The one exception is Reena’s realization of what her parents’ divorce has done to her.

The thing is, though, Reena’s home situation is, objectively speaking, the least traumatic. Her parents got a divorce, and her mother is no longer able to live in the financial ease to which she was accustomed. Her father has married a non-Indian India-enthusiast who apparently requires expensive, ridiculous gifts in order to be happy. That’s it.

Compared to Alice’s dead mother and dismissive stepmother (utterly reminiscent of Eliza’s stepmother from the Wild Swans), and Molly’s committed insane mother and stepmother who believes she ought to exist to help around the house (as Cinderella’s stepmother)…Reena’s trauma ought to be the lightest. But it isn’t. It’s the heaviest.

Frankly, I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly why this is the case. I can’t quite fault the characters, because the story gives them nothing. I can’t quite fault the story, because I understand that the style is trying to be uplifting rather than drag the reader down. I can’t quite fault the style, because a lot of the characters are so flat that I’m not sure a mere alteration of style would make it any better.

Alice, who is all but a doormat Cinderella type throughout the story and doesn’t seem to possess a shred of Eliza’s determination (not that she’s ever really given anything to be determined about), has the token silent grief over her mother’s death, followed by attempts to accept her horrible stepmother. When she finally decides to exact revenge, she learns that her her stepmother’s mother has just died. She offers support, they bond (briefly), and then her stepmother goes back to her usual self, but Alice has lost that tiny spark of urge for revenge. Here, the fault is clearly in the character. And yet…is it a fault? Even in this day and age, doesn’t family tragedy still push children to be utterly selfless—especially if their only parent is grieving terribly and they just want things to get better again?

Yet I can’t help but feel that Alice’s story was too clean and tidy. We never truly see her grieve, because at the point that the story begins, she has accepted the loss and her grief is in the I-miss-her-but-it-doesn’t-consume-me phase. This was one case in which I was waiting and waiting for Alice and her dad to have a long, serious talk about their feelings…and it never happened. But when one considers her character, that shouldn’t be a surprise.

If Alice suffers for too simple a character and the absence of the logical conclusion of her story, Molly does not. Molly is fierce and independent, and is ready to forsake her family in favor of her own personal happiness. This leads to the realization that her sister isn’t truly against her so much as she is developing affection for the stepmother who is there, as opposed to Molly who is not. It’s a nice moment…until one considers that it happens while their insane mother is missing from the asylum.

Molly expresses grief and frustration at her situation, certainly. There is definitely more reaction in her than was apparent in Alice. But this is just character traits. Alice buries her feelings. Molly reacts logically to her feelings. She does go out in the snow looking for her mother. It’s Molly’s touching moment with her stepmother, when the stepmother convinces Molly to come home instead of continuing wandering in the cold. But Molly’s suffering is mostly shame—and this shame is not very developed, nor is it very prominent.

I could very well be alone in this opinion. Maybe other people relate to this and are touched by how well Alice and Molly handle things.  But this is my theory: this is, in the end, a book for teenagers, and the number of teenagers who read this with dead or insane parents would, statistically speaking, probably be the minority. On the other hand, a lot of people with stepmothers nowadays most likely have them because their parents divorced. Speaking plainly, from a marketing perspective, most children and teenagers interested in a book about stepmothers are more likely dealing with divorce rather than death or insanity. If Archer wrote this book with that in mind, it makes perfect sense that Reena’s story took the emotional center. In that case, Alice and Molly merely serve as reminders that it could have been worse, and are themselves not characters that one is meant to relate to with respect to what happened to their mothers.

But ultimately, it was the fact that none of them could change anything about their home lives that struck me. On one hand, I do wish that at least one of them had tried to talk to a father or stepmother about how much she felt hurt and alone. Yet the conclusion that it reaches at the end, that they are truly family to each other, would perhaps have been slightly weaker if one of them had worked things out at home after all.

Conclusions

It’s a quick read, and a slightly uplifting one if one is dealing with family problems. Mostly, it serves as a reminder that for every bad there is a worse, and that somethings simply cannot be changed. I found it entertaining: it definitely has its funny moments, and this book is excellent at capturing the way that self-conscious, judgmental teenagers (though the same holds through for adults) can inadvertently lose potential friends by misreading situations and not taking the time to talk things out.

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