Initial reaction:I think for the most part, I’m 0 for 2 in terms of books I’ve read from J.A. Redmerski that I’ve actually liked, but this actually had potential to be a good read. Which actually makes me angry because if it’d had a good vetting out to deal with the inconsistencies and presentation, it could’ve been better. The writing in this was terrible, and that’s what ruined the book for me.
I’m a little more than upset after reading this book and probably not for the reasons that many people think. Let’s talk a bit, guys.
I’m struggling to put this into words that may be helpful for people to think upon, and it’s difficult because I’m conflicted on how to do so. But I’m going to do my best with it and pinpoint the problems with “Song of the Fireflies” without going too long with it. Believe it or not, it’s a simple problem that a veteran writer and a damned good editor worth their salt could’ve fixed before this book hit primetime. I firmly believe that.
Reading and writing aren’t completely separate spheres. I consider myself both a passionate reader and writer – have been for a long time. When I look at “Song of the Fireflies” as a reader, when I consider what the narrative was trying to do in its intentions for overarching story and character and such, there’s a part of me that’s more forgiving because I see the potential in the narrative for what it offered. I see that this is a love story that’s rooted in problems involving drug use, alcohol, mental illness, sexual insecurities, crime/murder, among other elements. Normally I would say that’s really ambitious and as long as the narrative can carry it and convince me of how serious, deep, and detailed these elements are presented, I can get behind it. As long as the overarching tale of the characters and their struggles are palpable, it’d be a narrative I’d enjoy.
But this book did not hook me. My criticisms of “Song of the Fireflies” have very little to do with New Adult cliches and offenses (though I’ll address those in brief shortly), and have mostly everything to do with how this narrative had absolutely atrocious writing and presentation. My reaction to the writing in this was so visceral it could compare to Bradley Cooper’s character flinging Hemingway out the window in “Silver Linings Playbook.”
The first thing I’ll say about this is that there are reasons why we writerly peeps have writing rules that we adhere to when we tell stories. This is basic stuff that you’re taught since middle school or high school when penning a narrative. “Show, don’t tell.” “In late, out early” when it comes to scene transitions. “Don’t use direct address/breaking the fourth wall” unless you have a good reason for doing it, and usually it’s best to use it in comedic measures (like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or even in Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”). “Don’t use your characters as tension killers by telling the reader the conflict that’s about to come up shortly. It doesn’t build anticipation, it only serves to break it.”
I don’t rehash/mention these rules on the point of trying to sound pretentious, but following these rules actually make it easier for a reader to follow the story you’re trying to set up. It makes it more enjoyable for them, and they don’t ask questions like “Why is the story going so slow?” “Why does this sound so repetitive?” “Why can’t I follow the characters better?”
Redmerski ignored every single one of these rules. And not just ignored them, I think she purposefully broke them.
As to the motivations behind doing that, I can’t say, but the narrative clearly suffered from those decisions. The beginning of the narrative was an epic mess of massive info dumping in places about the characters and I could barely feel any sense of emotional intimacy regarding their situations and insecurities. It was clearly told to me, not shown. Even “The Edge of Never” wasn’t this bad for presentation. I may have not liked “Edge of Never” with respect to the melodrama and cliches that offered, but heck, it was better written than this for structure and presentation and even character emotional intimacy. I could tell what Cam and Andrew were thinking in a given situation and somehow feel how they reacted to certain situations. Here, it wasn’t the same for Bray and Elias’s narrative.
Bray and Elias have been lifelong friends, pretty much since they were young kids. If there was any part in the beginning I was actually okay with, it was the presentation of this. When it came to them meeting as youth and connecting, that part was fine, but then there were massive time jumps that I couldn’t make head for tails of in the narrative. I couldn’t connect with Bray and Elias after that for a time. I kept being told how the characters were “fucked up” and there was massive info dumping on that note. Why couldn’t that have been shown? Why did the author have to direct address those particular points? Why is it that despite Bray not having a “fucked up” past (and honestly, I saw that as a narrator’s insecurity because NA tends to have many characters who are sexually assaulted or abused or with pasts of that nature), that such was mentioned in that way? If the narrative bothered showing the details of Bray’s bipolar disorder and her family’s indifference/inability to help her from the get go, I could’ve felt more for that on its own terms. Instead it feels like the narrative jumps and repeats and rehashes it without intimacy. It’s not until much later in the narrative where it’s actually shown, and by then, it feels like I’m beaten over the head with the knowledge of it.
It doesn’t make sense.
The narrative takes a few twists for harrowing events about 20% into the story, and Bray and Elias go on the run as a result. They meet a bunch of unsavory characters along the way while trying to hide from the secret that threatens to get them both in trouble. I won’t say the twist. I actually thought the twist was decent in itself, but I couldn’t help but think that the way it was handled as a bridge point (especially with the way that Bray and Elias defer to sex so shortly after this massive transgression) that it was just a shallow plot point for drama. I hated it for that, because the emotional congruence was very lacking.
It’s also a terrible thing when you realize the sex scenes have more intimacy to them than the issues of the characters themselves. You can’t just tell those points, you have to vet them out. If you make mention of your character’s sexual insecurities over having threesomes, then that’s a fascinating conflict point in itself – why NOT delve into it? You can’t just write that off and say “Hey that’s fine,” and glaze over it – because it’s a more complex issue than that. Or, if one of your characters was falsely accused of rape, served time, and it ruined the scope of his life including losing the love of his life over the accusation, that’s a fascinating story in and of itself and it needs to be treated with not only vetting, but sensitivity as well. (I almost think that could’ve been its own story seed for how it was presented in this narrative for the character. But I didn’t like the one-sided handling and presentation. Not at all.)
The drug use scenes in this were pretty gratuitous and bothered me as well. I mean, I’ve read narratives that had fascinating looks at the fall of characters who get caught up in the use and abuse of drugs (and they’re very dark in their overarching presentation), but here, it almost feels like it’s treated in a non-serious, flippant way. I know that’s probably not what Redmerski intended, but honestly – it just wasn’t developed well for the scope of the narrative, and added to the mess of the meandering that the story took in its turns.
I really didn’t start seeing the merits of “Song of the Fireflies” until about 70-80% of the narrative in, when it reverted to the Present Day and the characters we’ve been introduced to get involved in a tense police standoff. To me, that was where the REAL story started. I don’t understand why the story didn’t just start there, and develop accordingly. I felt like I was reading a narrative on a different level at that point and it was the most interesting thing offered up to that time. I shouldn’t have had to wade through 80% of the novel in meandering repetition and told circumstances just to reach the point of that standoff because it wasn’t worth that much. I wonder if Redmerski wrote that part first, and then said “Okay, I have to write to that, because that’s the payoff emotionally that these characters have to face.”
But it was too long. It was far too long. And I can’t imagine that many readers with less patience than me would be willing enough just to get to that point. Even then, with the issues of the characters in notation, some of it does come across as melodrama. I did respect Elias’s speech to Bray’s sister over her disorder, but it was still so late in the narrative for events. And there was a scene of near death that was so reminiscent of “The Edge of Never” and suddenly reverted that I felt a bit thrown back by it. It was out of place. It was almost an exact replication of the problems I had with Andrew’s situation in “The Edge of Never” – the reversal of the course of events felt too out of the blue and jarring for me to feel shocked by, and then the course toward relief.
Still, I think I’m being generous for giving Redmerski 1.5 stars for this narrative, because it was a long, terrible slog just to get to parts of the story with more resonation. I hope the next book I pick up by her is better than this. I’m willing to try again.
Oh, and for what it’s worth – Cam and Andrew make an appearance in this story, so this is set in the same timeline/universe as the “Edge of Never” books. I don’t know how I felt about that personally, but maybe people who liked that narrative will get a kick out of the reference.
This could’ve been a heck of a lot better story than the way it was presented though, and ultimately, the presentation was what killed it for me.
Overall score: 1.5/5 stars
Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher Forever (Grand Central Publishing).