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Book Review: No Such Thing as the Real World: Stories About Growing Up and Getting a Life

No Such Thing As the Real WorldNo Such Thing as the Real World: Stories About Growing Up and Getting a Life
An Na, M.T. Anderson, K.L. Going, Beth Kephart, Chris Lynch, and Jacqueline Woodson
HarperTeen
2009 
247 pages 

Imagine you are invited to a small, intimate dinner party being given by an author friend of yours. You eagerly accept because you’ve been to previous dinner parties at this friend’s home, which is how you know your friend is a fabulous cook.

Tonight’s get-together is a potluck. Five other writers will be joining you and your friend. You’ve heard of a few of these folks, but three of them are brand new to you. You go to the dinner knowing that you’re going to find something wonderful on the menu (your friend’s offering) and because they are peers of your friend, something new to surprise you. Chances are, you’ll make at least one new friend as well.

That’s what my experience was like upon seeing the short story collection No Such Thing as the Real World: Stories About Growing Up and Getting a Life in the teen section of the library. I knew beforehand that author Beth Kephart had a story included within, and I was highly anticipating reading “The Longest Distance” as I’m a big fan of her work. (Beth Kephart could pretty much write the same sentence repeatedly – like grade school kids once had to do as a punishment – and I’d probably still stand up and applaud its brilliance. I also, in the interest of full disclosure, consider Beth a friend.)

With that, it’s probably no surprise that, among the six stories in No Such Thing as the Real World, Beth Kephart’s “The Longest Distance” stands out to me as the strongest (and is my favorite). For Kephart fans, this story about the shock and aftermath of grieving one’s best friend has glimmers of all that we loved about Nothing But Ghosts. 

That’s certainly not to dismiss the other authors and their stories – quite the opposite, actually. Like the fictional dinner party example earlier, I came away from No Such Thing as the Real World especially wanting more after sampling the offerings of Chris Lynch’s “Arrangements” and An Na’s darkly written “Complication.” Along with Kephart’s story, these two were particularly memorable. I loved the first line of “Arrangements,” which immediately sets the tone of the story by stating:

“The thing to remember about a funeral is that it’s not about you. At least you hope not.” (pg. 175)

and continues with

“Dad insisted – insisted – on appearing at his own wake with a big smile across his face. Whatever the process is in the funeral business for freezing a toothy smile on a guy – probably involving toothpicks, since the undertaker was a local – they must have undertaken it, because Dad lit up the proceedings with this electro grin like the expression on a very fat skeleton head. Some people found the effect unsettling.” (pg. 176) 

I also liked K.L. Going’s “Survival” and Jacqueline Woodson’s “The Company.” M.T. Anderson’s “The Projection: A Two-Part Invention” was innovative in its structure, but came across as a little disjointed to me. (No worries, M.T.: I’m still planning to read your The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing series, so we’re all good.)

In all of these stories, issues of loss and disappointment figure poignantly. All of the characters – contemporaries of the target audience that publisher HarperTeen strives to reach with this collection – are wrestling with grown-up issues such as parental abandonment, the aftermath of incest, the sudden death of a best friend, unrequited love, and inheriting a business (and a reputation) after the death of a parent. Hence, the the title of this collection, which more than lives up to its name by showing that because young adults are dealing with very real issues, the real world is very much right here and now.

 

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