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.