Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

The Curious Case of Rebecca Stead

Or: how she made a simple narrative complex

When You Reach Me is a tricky bit of fiction. No one seems to know where it belongs, genre-wise. Is it science fiction? Is it a mystery? Historical fiction? Wikipedia has the full rundown of confusions.

Here’s my methodology – and it’s up for debate, but I want you to see how I’m thinking about her structure and how that influences my reading of what kind of book it is. I go all the way back to basic storytelling techniques and ask two questions: what’s the inciting incident and what’s the climax? We can argue about these points as well, but I’m going with Sal cutting off Miranda as the first and her realization that she can help the girl who always has to pee, Alice – a little over ¾ through the book. If you grant me those two points, then the book is at core about Miranda growing up. I’d back this up with further narrative evidence concerning the new friends she makes in Sal’s absence, but I don’t want this to be too long and I don’t want to throw in spoilers. To sum up: for me, this book is a coming-of-age story. Miranda learns things about herself and how to be different.

Does that mean there’s no mystery? No sci-fi? Absolutely not. I would name this part of the structure the character narrative that lives alongside the central puzzle of the notes, which is the action narrative. But I wouldn’t call it a mystery – though I would call it mysterious. Unlike a typical mystery novel (Roseanna), in which our protagonist unravels the problem in question (who killed him? Who stole the money? WHO?), Miranda doesn’t figure out the story until it’s too late – which is that the notes that are appearing in her life in unexpected places are coming from much closer to home than she knew.

A lot of the negative reviews on Goodreads gripe that the reader solved the mystery early on and that it was too obvious. A friend of mine to whom I recommended saw the ending, too, but still liked the book. When the mystery is the central issue, then its solving makes or breaks the story. When the character is the central issue, then her changing is.

I break it down this way –

Main Structure:  Miranda’s character and how she interacts with the world

Action (secondary) Structure: the mystery of the notes

Tertiary Structure: How the author organizes the story (and therefore the world)

I base this third claim on the mother’s ostensible storyline – her goal to get on to The $20,000 Pyramid. Miranda helps her study and, more to the point, every chapter begins with the kinds of categories Miranda’s mother is supposed to guess on the game show: Things You Keep in a Box, Things That Go Missing. 1978 New York has its mysteries and they aren’t all of the sci-fi variety. Why won’t Sal talk to me? Why is Julia so mean? Why does mom hate her job? The daily questions nag as much as the big ones do, even if the stakes seem different.

It’s a brilliant book because it’s so layered. How many coming of age stories have we read and seen? Millions upon millions. But when you make the story richer than simply, “I can be a better person,” the writing world explodes with possibilities. And for that matter, so does the reading world.






5 responses

  1. I’m not familiar with When You Reach Me, but this post is interesting as I occasionally read books that could be placed in different categories.

    The Time Traveler’s Wife is one such book — romance or sci-fi? The sci-fi aspect is really non-existent is you think of sci-fi as “science that could happen one day” — Henry’s time traveling is purely biological so there’s no science involved. But for the sake of argument, let’s classify his time traveling as sci-fi.

    Then there’s the romance, and there’s a lot of it. I would never normally buy a romance novel; the very idea bores me to tears. But I loved this one because of the time-traveling aspect.

    I always ask myself this: If I take away one aspect of the novel, is there enough left to call it a novel? In the case of The Time Traveler’s Wife, if you take away the time traveling, then you’re left with a strong romance but ultimately no story. But if you take away the romance, then you could conceivably be left with a time traveling story between friends, brother and sister, etc. So in that sense, the sci-fi outweighs the romance in terms of importance.

    Anyway — just dropping by since you kindly left a comment on my blog way back at the end of August. Time flies!! :-p

    September 19, 2011 at 8:48 am

  2. I completely agree about the coming of age assessment. You know, I almost couldn’t read the book because of the first person present tense. The prose felt clumsy to me, and I kept scratching my head as to why so many people raved–until the end. I definitely would NOT classify it as Sci-fi, although I could see it falling under Mystery. Perhaps this is a case of the formless “Fiction” category eh?

    September 11, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    • Absolutely. I think it shares that quality with The Magicians in that the authors are utilizing fantastical elements to expand upon what are ultimately fairly straightforward character stories. Without having thought too hard about it, I’m inclined to think that plot-driven stories (even with fully fleshed out characters) tend to fall under “genre fiction” (where the genre helps determine the plot to a large degree), and character-driven stories tend to fall under “literary” fiction. I’d be interested in sounding out literary agents on this point to get their take.

      September 11, 2011 at 8:38 pm

  3. Nicely worded. You made it sound so good. Thank you for stopping by my blog and the kind words :)

    September 8, 2011 at 9:22 am

  4. Now I’m going to have to read this book. I write in layers, but my book isn’t published yet. The most obvious layer is the pun, mostly for fun. I include lots of those, and not only puns that teens will see, let alone understand the alternate meaning. My whole world of Erth One, the first earth, is another layer. Even if you can’t read the book yet (still in the query stage), you can see the map working copy, and look for layered meanings on my website. On my blog,, you can read and vote for my flash fiction if you like it, and enter a chocolate contest with great odds of winning. Few entries so far. Happy reading!

    September 7, 2011 at 9:56 am

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