The Given World gave me a headache. Why is it that when “serious” fiction “examines” life that it only focuses on the bad stuff?
Riley is a young girl in Montana who worships her brother. He’s drafted and shipped off to war in Vietnam. It breaks her heart and she systematically begin to ruin her life, because she can’t get past it. She eventually leaves home, gets lost in worlds of drugs, domestic violence, and alcoholics on the California coast. Everyone she meets is as dysfunctional as she is or on their way to dysfunction. Personal opinion here: if society was only composed of people like that, it would have fallen apart a long time ago.
Riley is a character that I tried to like but just couldn’t. She always made the worst decisions and if there was a way to improve her situation, she didn’t choose it. It was like she had blinders on to the possible goodness in life and jumped enthusiastically into the darkness. She turns her back on her family, blames everyone else in life for her problems, and consistently isolates herself from anyone who could possibly lend comfort or stability. In this passage, she’s talking about her father: “The way they smoke, so casually oblivious, reminds me of my father- on the porch, maybe, or out in the yard at night, looking up at the sky, for weather, but it’s not as if he could miss the stars. I hear my name in his voice: “Riley…” Never loud or angry, just gentle reminders: try to grow up with some degree of intentionality and grace; try to believe the world is more benevolent than not. I wonder if he knows I did hear him.” pg 10, ebook. Riley, I don’t think you did.
I did grow to feel sorry for Riley. She didn’t ask for her family to be ripped apart by war. I guess, after experiencing that sort of emotional turmoil at an early age, that it might be almost impossible to put your life on track to begin with. “She reminded him of a deer who knew you weren’t out to shoot it. Like she’d let you get just so close, and then bolt to the edge of the clearing; the forest nearly impenetrable behind her where she knew you couldn’t easily follow.pg 40, ebook. But, I just couldn’t get over the fact that she didn’t use her intimate knowledge of pain to help other people.
Riley’s mother was a hot mess too, but she managed to raise two children fairly successfully. I was surprised that Riley didn’t use her as a role model, even for a moment. In this passage, Riley’s mother writes her a letter, trying to connect with her wayward child: “And lost as you already are these days, or as I think you must be, you still probably understand, maybe better than most, that kids don’t necessarily hold you steady. Even if they do, somehow, hold you in place.” pg 97, ebook.
Rather than continue on in this vein, I will end this review with acknowledging that The Given World was not for me. But, if you enjoy reading coming of age stories with multiple flawed characters and plenty of bad decisions, you may want to pick this one up. Some trigger warnings for sensitive readers: domestic abuse, racially motivated violence, and drug use.
Thanks for reading!