Friday, February 22, 2008
Prey by Lurlene McDaniel
Prey by Lurlene McDaniel
Reading Level: Young Adult
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (February 12, 2008)
Thus far, I've only reviewed books that I've really liked, so you may be thinking, "does Jill like every book she reads?" Of course not. I've read plenty of children's books I don't like but have decided not to review them because I really didn't think I had much to say except that they were just okay. I lead a team of writers at a communications firm and know how important it is to give constructive feedback to help writers grow. As a writer myself, I know what it feels like to receive wishy-washy, vague feedback. I need to know what needs work so I can improve, make it the best piece possible, and apply the same lessons to my next piece. So, in my opinion, if I read a book and don't have something constructive to say except I didn't like it, that's a useless review. That's why up until now I've intentionally chosen not to review books about which I had mixed feelings.
Last weekend, I read Lurlene McDaniel's new Young Adult novel, Prey, and I DO have something constructive (at least I think so) to say about it. It's a story about a female high school history teacher, Ms. Lori Settles who seduces her teenage student, Ryan Piccoli. We seem to be obsessed with real-life cases like this in this country. Probably the most infamous of these teachers is Mary Kay Letourneau who had two children with her teenage student and ended up marrying him when she finished her jail sentence. And then the 25-year-old teacher Kelsey Peterson made national news back in November when she was caught in Mexico with her 14-year-old student. As a former teacher myself, I am incredulous when I hear stories like this. Questions run through my head: Why would someone in such a professional and influential position do this? What was she thinking? What happened to this woman that would cause her to act this way?
I was naturally intrigued when I received a review copy of Prey. Perhaps this would answer some of my questions and get more into the head of these female predators. Prey alternates between the point of view of three characters: Ryan, Ms. Settles, and Honey, Ryan's longtime friend who is secretly in love with him.
The book gets off to a promising start. We learn from the very beginning that Ryan is intentionally Lori's target. From the very first day of school, she knows that, "he'll be the One" (p. 15). Upon reading this, I felt a chill and was eager to continue reading. However, I felt the seduction happened way too quickly, and Ryan's situation didn't seem realistic. His father is a traveling salesman and is out of town four days of the week. A housekeeper cleans the house, but doesn't live there and hardly pays any attention to Ryan when she is there. It almost seems too easy for Lori to manipulate him and too easy for them to get together.
Writing in first person is challenging and probably one of the most difficult tasks to pull off well. Successfully writing from the first person point of view of multiple characters is extremely difficult (I'm thinking of Faulkner here, who I believe was a master at this). I applaud McDaniel for taking a risk here. I was interested in the relationship between Honey and Ryan and then Ryan and Lori, but McDaniel never really went deep enough with the characters. While Honey's character was needed to describe Ryan's friend's and family's concern about his sudden change in behavior, I often felt she was just an aside, an interrupter of sorts, especially when her chapters disrupted the flow and momentum of the novel.
In addition, at some points, McDaniel didn't seem to capture the teenage voice in a believable way. For example, at one point in novel, Ryan hears that a coach at the school has been asking Lori out. When Lori picks him up for a tryst, he confronts her. Here's how he describes his feelings to the reader, "Rain is pelting the windows, sluicing in long noisy rivers along the glass, like a knife cutting through my heart. The windows are fogged, moist from our breath and the heat of anger. Hot wetness swells behind my eyes. I'm acting like a jerk, but I can't help myself. I have to know the truth about her and Coach" (p. 76).
To me, language like this coming from a 15/16 year old seems inauthentic, while at other times, he's completely thinking like a teenage boy. McDaniel did, however, make Lori Settles seem to be the most authentic and consistent of the characters. We see what's going on in her mind, what makes her tick, and her deliberate plot to seduce him.
Oh, and let me address the white elephant in the room: how were the sexual encounters portrayed? McDaniel tastefully describes the seduction and subsequent encounters. Without going into detail, she leaves much to the imagination and doesn't get too graphic. But don't get me wrong--we are talking about a teacher having sex with a teenage boy. It's in the book, but I was never shocked or offended or thought McDaniel went too far. Given the sensitive subject matter, I'll leave it up to you to decide whether or not you think it's appropriate for your teen, and I would only recommend this for teens.
Overall, Prey was a good story on surface level, but it lacked the depth, consistency, and authenticity that would have made it a great story. McDaniel herself admits in the author's note that this is not typical of her writing, and I commend her for stepping outside of her comfort zone. I also admire her for addressing such a serious issue and hope that teenagers who read the book will be able to spot the warning signs if their friends start to behave differently and secretively.