The marketing blurb on the back of this YA novel says “for fans of Jodi Piccoult”, but since I’ve been underwhelmed by the Jodi Piccoult novels I’ve tried, that’s not much of a recommendation. I would say that Imperfect Spiral is much better than a lot of YA novels and transcends the “problem novel” genre.
Danielle Samuelson spent her summer babysitting five year old Humphrey Danker. Humphrey is precocious, persistent, and perhaps slightly “perculiar”, as he likes to pronounce the word. He has an imagination that stretches from aliens called Thrumbles of the planet Thrumble-Boo all the way to throwing the perfect spiral with a pint-sized football. That is, Humphrey imagines throwing the perfect spiral, but he never actually does it because he is killed as our story begins in a tragic car accident.
And it’s all Danielle’s fault. Or is it? This book is about assumptions and the judgments we all make about ourselves and about one another. Danielle thinks Humphrey’s parents, especially his father, might be somewhat overbearing and expecting too much out of Humphrey. Danielle’s parents think her brother Adrian, who dropped out of high school, should shape up and live up to his abilities. Danielle believes that she should have prevented the accident that killed Humphrey. The neighbors think that the illegal, undocumented immigrant family who ran into Humphrey should be held responsible. No one knows exactly what Humphrey’s parents think about the death of their only child. Everyone in the story makes judgments and finds fault when the guilty party is mostly just an imperfect world.
I am fascinated by how people survive after a horrendous tragedy changes their life, especially a tragedy in which the person in question is at fault or might have to accept some blame for the tragedy. I’m also amazed and saddened at how we as a culture and society need to find someone or something to blame for every single tragic event that occurs. If a car malfunctions, it must be the fault of the manufacturer or of the last mechanic to work on that car or of the owner for not being more careful in its maintenance. It can’t be just an accident. If I fall and break my head open, it must be the fault of the people who made the surface I’m walking on or my fault for walking recklessly or your fault for distracting me from walking. Someone must take responsibility. Something must change so that no one, anywhere, ever will fall and break their head open ever again. Laws must be passed and named after me. Rules must be formulated for safe walking. Walking must be regulated or outlawed or only done where there are no possible distractions or safety hazards.
We are obsessed with blame and with making everything completely safe and risk-free. But sometimes there are just accidents. Maybe, in hindsight, those accidents could be prevented, but at what cost to our freedom and our sense of adventure and our joy? I believe that as we have become a post-Christian culture with a belief that this life is all there is, we have become so concerned about preserving life that we have boxed ourselves, and especially our children, into tiny, circumscribed lives that have no room for risk and creativity and untrammeled joy.
And yet, if my daughter died because I let her walk to the grocery store by herself, how would I live with myself afterwards? I don’t know, but I like the way Ms. Levy’s Imperfect Spiral asks the questions that I ask myself about this tension between guilt, responsibility, imperfection, and freedom.
Definitely recommended for 2013 Cybils nominations in the category YA Fiction.