My Review: I'm hoping to keep this review short and sweet as there are so many wonderful layers to this unique, coming-of-age novel by the visionary Stephen Metcalfe. The Tragic Age is packed with themes and life lessons-- so much so that I can see this being a novel that should be read in the classroom (although language and sexual situations may be an issue; more about that later).
The story is told through Billy's perceptive yet cynical eyes. He explains how his father won the lottery which puts them in a whole new social bracket. He constantly compares his pre-lottery life to his new one. Before the lottery, his twin sister had been alive and his parents seemed to have been much happier (at least they were able to communicate better) among other things. After the big win, they buy a big house, move to a rich gated community, and appear to have everything that money can buy. We quickly come to the same conclusion that Billy has cleverly come to-- money can't buy happiness. It can't bring someone back from the dead and can't stop people from drinking-- a really bad habit his father has picked up.
I've read quite a few Young Adult novels with female characters that have Hemangiomas (red facial "birthmark") but have never come across one with a male protagonist. I was curious to see things through Billy's perspective. How does a young man deal with it?
Cancer is another topic that is laced throughout the story. Billy's not over the loss of his sister and his own mother is a cancer survivor. The Tragic Age is actually the first book I've read that deals a bit with the topic of cancer since learning my own father has it.
So here are some other things I enjoyed about the novel. The chapters are short-- ranging from just a paragraph to a couple of pages. This obviously leads to quick and addictive reading.
Billy is funny and quirky, especially when he goes off on one of his fact lectures. What's really cool about this is just when you start to wonder what in the hell does this have to do with the story, Billy always finds a way to relate it back to the topic at hand which is truly brilliant. Here is one of my favorite examples, when Billy tries to describe and deny his attraction to Gretchen:
"It's just not fair.
Norepinephrine, phenylhydrazine, and dopamine, which act like amphetamines, hit my brain's pleasure center like a locomotive. My pupils dilate. My heart pumps faster. The chemical oxytocin floods my body, creating intense feelings of caring, attraction, and warmth. Physical contact produces endorphins and continued high doses of ocytocin. These chemicals are all natural opiates that create a druglike dependency.
I am so screwed."
Things really pick up when Twom (pronounced "tomb") Twomey enters the picture. I absolutely found Twom intriguing. Perhaps it's the mysterious bad boy thing he has going on. I loved how he shows no fear, the way he deals with the school bully John Montebello (one of my favorite parts), how he can be violent one minute but be sensitive enough to give some attention to the "fat girl". Billy can't help but gravitate toward him, perhaps because they both use facades to cover who they really are inside. I also found Twom's star-crossed love with Deliza interesting.
With Billy and Twom becoming best buds, others start joining their little group. Ephraim, the introverted "nerd" who can hack into pretty much anything and the popular, gorgeous Deliza (who surprisingly falls for Twom)-- they start breaking into houses. Their purpose is not to steal anything-- Ephraim does it for the rush and cred since he loves tech stuff, it gives Twom and Deliza a place to make out among other things and Billy...well, he sleeps. You learn pretty early on that Billy also suffers from Insomnia. He can't sleep at home which is why he is basically a walking encyclopedia. But for some reason, in other people's homes, he can finally rest peacefully.
While some may find the culmination of the story startling (I won't lie, I had to go back and reread it a few times and then sit on it a few days until I figured out whether I liked the direction the story took me) I have to say the title says it all. As a teacher, I deal with kids from ages 11-18, five days a week and it never ceases to amaze me how they can take something so small and completely blow it out of proportion. Or if they had just taken the time to think things through, they would have come to a completely different conclusion or outcome. That is really all I can say without giving away the ending of the story.
I also must add that after doing a little research on author Stephen Metcalfe and finding out that while this is his debut novel, he is not new to the field. He is an accomplished screenwriter and playwright which explains why The Tragic Age feels like it can easily be turned into a film.
The Tragic Age is a true gem in a sea of coal. A breath of fresh air that follows its own formula, it is the type of novel that can be enjoyed by teens and adults alike. Stephen Metcalfe is a strong writer that cleverly intertwines many themes and topics without making the story feel convoluted. Lastly, while this novel would be an excellent addition to the high school classroom and would open up discussion on a variety of different topics, I must warn that there is adult language (cursing) and sexual situations. However, I hope that this does not deter educators from experiencing The Tragic Age and somehow find a way to incorporate it into the classroom. As a reader, you will find this coming-of-age novel funny, eye-opening and told through the eyes of one of the most unique male characters in Young Adult literature.
Stephen Metcalfe wrote the production drafts for Pretty Woman, Dangerous Minds and Mr. Holland's Opus, among others. His stage plays have been produced in New York and at theaters throughout the US, Europe and Japan. He is an Associate Artist at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and has been an adjunct professor in dramatic writing at University of California at San Diego, University of San Diego and San Diego State University.
Connect With Stephen Metcalfe
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Connect With Stephen Metcalfe
Website | Facebook | Goodreads
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