My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Initial reaction: “Paper Covers Rock” has some brilliant pieces to its whole. For one, it’s a story that takes place in the 1980s at an all boys school in North Carolina, with a protagonist dealing with the aftermath of a friend’s death. Alex is a poet and finds refuge in his writing for dealing with the grief, but then he suspects his teacher might know something surrounding Thomas’s (his friend’s) death. Particularly since she was on the scene in the aftermath.
I’m kind of at a loss for words because of how this story ended, I don’t know how to feel about it, which is why this is probably going to be a difficult book for me to rate and write a review about. On one hand, the plot twist towards the end of the book was brilliant, but then it threw another curveball which I didn’t like at all and ended with a result that just made me throw up my hands at the confoundedness of it all. And the fact that there’s really not an ending that ties it together? *sighs*
I have a feeling that “Paper Covers Rock” wanted to be a mind-trippy novel, but ultimately with the respective ending it had, it fell flat on its face and never recovered. It’s a shame because for a good 3/4ths of the book, I was enjoying it despite a few qualms. I was prepared to give this around 4-stars for a time, and I kept asking myself “Why does this have such a low overall rating on Goodreads? Even with the fragmented jumps, this is actually pretty good.”
But then I came to the ending and figured why. 😦
The story revolves around 16-year-old Alex who has just lost a friend (Thomas) in a terrible accident. The three boys – Alex, Thomas, and another friend Glenn, were out getting drunk near a jumping/diving rock, and Thomas dived the wrong way. The aftermath has Alex and Glenn trying to save his life, and their English teacher, Ms. Dovecott coming to help after hearing their screams.
But nothing is all that it seems in this novel. Alex and Glenn agree to keep themselves bound to secrecy of what happened because they were drinking and that would get them expelled from the school in a heartbeat. But Alex has guilt over the event and feels he could’ve done more to save his friend. I actually quite liked the introduction to Alex, as he’s a poet of budding talents. Since the novel revolves around English and poetry, it’s interesting to see how this story’s told through snippets of Alex’s own writing samples. The poetry is stellar, that could easily earn this book 4-stars in my opinion, because I enjoyed those breaks in the book. I liked the references (somewhat) to Moby Dick, though it’s been ages since I’ve read the latter. The drawn setting of 1982 and the environment of the all-boys school is well done for the most part, with bit references to help set the tone.
But then the qualms stacked up. There are bit references to GLBT issues in here, particularly with a relationship that’s kept under wraps and something that Alex heard Thomas say in the moments before he died. However, in the spectrum of the novel, it’s presented rather jagged, and not at all resolved by the ending. There’s also the consideration of Ms. Dovecott – I liked her character, I could tell that Alex liked her in a student crush way. Their relationship is presented well in a good measure of the novel, and Alex has the suspicion that she may know more about Thomas’s death and may potentially rat him and Glenn out. Glenn doesn’t trust her, hatches a plan to get her dismissed from the school, Alex doesn’t want anything to do with it.
Alex’s writing clues Ms. Dovecott in on feelings of guilt and there are parts suggest she knows more than she’s letting on. I actually liked the build-up of tension with that. But then you get to the ending and it’s like “Huh? That’s it? There was no motivation for that to happen on Alex’s part – it just…ended.” I didn’t like that consideration at all. And given the nature of the ending is supposed to be symbolic, and I would’ve understood if it’d been more cohesive, I did not like the way it left its threads dangling. It felt sloppy instead of powerful. I was quite vexed with it.
Still, I have to give this effort to Hubbard in some modes because for a while, I really did enjoy the story, the ending and the let down of the respective build-up were what killed me from giving this higher than my respective rating. To say that I would recommend it? Hmm, with caution, this is not a story that will suit everyone, particularly with its fragmented presentation, symbolic representations, and an ending that will either leave you thinking on the loss and helplessness that Alex feels, or cringing at the mishandled buildup.
Overall score: 2.5/5