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The more [personal profile] mildred_of_midgard and I are diving into these books, the more I am impressed by them. They work on so many levels — the immediate visceral level, the depth of character level, but also the amount of cross-referencing and deep theme repeating and reflecting among the books is frankly scary. Some of it I'd seen before, and some of it I never really registered because they're so good on the other levels. I don't know any other books quite like these (and if you do, I definitely want to know about it).

In this book, as I mentioned when talking about Dicey's Song, the Tolstoy quote "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" is quoted and is a Thing. When Jeff's dad quotes it, he's mostly quoting it unironically (as referring to his failed marriage), but really, this entire cycle is basically Voigt's answer and rebuttal to that quote. This cycle is about family, (mostly) about families that are (or become) healthy and happy, and showing that they are all very different.

(Note also that — although I consider this actually pretty minor in terms of the ways they are different — Voigt has put the families she writes about here in different configurations. The Tillermans are a set of children first with their mother as a single parent, then with their grandmother, who adopts them (again as a single parent). Jeff has divorced parents (and most of the book is about a single-parenting situation — and I love that it's a father single-parenting, in contrast to Momma and Gram). Even the minor characters — Robin in Sons is in a blended family with a stepdad, Millie is a widow with no children, Eunice has never been married — have family variation. The typical two-parent-with-biological-children home is only present here (I think, even in a minor way) in the older Tillerman generation (which fails!) and the Smiths family, and I'm kind of awed by the choice she made (in the 80's!) to make the one actual functional-all-the-way-through "typical" family (I put it in quotes because, well, all families are different!) the black one, without making a big deal of it at all (to the point where I just figured that out).)

Each book of this cycle has its own explicit major themes that are distinct from those of the other books, although you see echoes and resonances in the other books. This book is about love. What is love, what does it mean to love, with very careful attention given to how we hurt people we love, sometimes without meaning to and sometimes absolutely meaning to. (The scene where Jeff carefully, intentionally hurts Melody is… stunning, and activates just about all the empathy ever for me, because I've been through that on a (very very much) smaller scale and know (on that scale) what it feels like, and yeah. She knows.) The Professor hurts Jeff a lot, with the best of intentions. Melody… hurts Jeff a lot, without the best of intentions, let us say, although it is up in the air as to whether she really loves Jeff or not (Jeff certainly doesn't think she does). And of course all the other books are about love, too — most pointedly Stranger. (There are a lot of parallels, thematically, between Solitary and Stranger.) But this one — well — the Professor says it:

It strikes me that love is just the beginning… I think we can't help loving, but what matters is what we do about it. What we do with love. Do for it. What love does with us.


Which is, on its own, its own thesis statement for the series. (Yeah. Every book might have one, at this rate. I know.) The Tillermans wouldn't have said it that way, of course; it isn't the way they think about things at all, but it still has a lot to do with how they live as a family, versus (for example) how the older generation of Tillermans lived.

And, you know, I'm starting to realize that another subsidiary theme that threads through these books is gifts. Early in this book, the Professor gives Jeff a guitar, and it's the kind of gift that enlarges both of them. Brother Thomas gives to them, in the kind of reaching out and holding on that Mr. Lingerle did in Song. Jeff gives back the gift (this is the part that Song didn't handle), using his talents to figure out what Brother Thomas needs (apparently, to go crabbing). Of course there are gifts in Runner, tied to this reaching out and holding on — the boat from Patrice, that Bullet gives to Ab. And Stranger's climactic scene is about a gift, but there are giving and gifts, reaching out and holding on, all the way through that book — I haven't gotten there yet, but I am wondering if the main theme of that Stranger is giving. But anyway.

And Solitary, like all the books, examines how complicated people are. Except for Mr. Chappelle (poor Mr. Chappelle, doomed to be a jerk in every book), everyone has unexpected depths — particularly the Professor, but everyone, even Dicey from Jeff's POV. Even Melody, who isn't much for unselfish love, but who at least loves Max.

Boats are complicated in this book. I'm going to have to revise my hypothesis on boats to boats being sort of emblematic of separation. Jeff's boat after Melody rejects him — well, that kind of goes without saying. But then Dicey and Jeff go on a boat, and it's a way of healing, it gives them that space and separation that Jeff needs to come to terms with Dicey being her own person. And crabbing, for Brother Thomas, now that I think of it: separation from his problems, from his doubts, and separation with Jeff and the Tillermans. Separation is definitely not always a bad thing.

It's interesting, rereading this again carefully, it's so clear why Jeff falls for Dicey, she's just so the complete opposite of Melody. ("She didn't ask or even want anything from him.") It's also so clear why Jeff reacts exactly the way he does in Seventeen.

There's this bit, which I feel like is actually a (extremely rare!) misstep and something that Voigt rectifies in Stranger:

"And they really feel like a family, all of them," he said.

"More than mine, and mine hasn't ever been disrupted," [Mina] said.


Or maybe it's not a misstep. Because Mina's family is so different that I could see her saying that; even though I firmly believe her family feels just as much like a family as the Tillermans, it does feel very different.

(One of the biggest reasons I wanted to have at least two kids (once we had one) was as insurance against my being a crappy parent. (This seems to horrify people who grew up in highly functional homes.) Because I can totally trace major ways in which my sister and I have bonded to parallel ways in which my parents are, let's say, imperfect. I do wonder sometimes whether families that are more functional don't need the siblings to bond quite as heavily — they can, but they don't need to, and so don't necessarily do so quite as often — D's parents, for example, are amazing, and their kids don't seem to be super close. But anyway, I get, a little, why the very disruption of their family bound them so tightly together.)

My big question regarding these books is, why can I read (and love) this one and not Homecoming? I didn't realize this until trying to explain to mildred why I couldn't finish Homecoming, and I figured it's because I this abandonment and (much greater) rejection squick, and it really bothers me that the children start off by being abandoned by their mother and then at the midpoint of the book are emotionally rejected by the parental figure they've journeyed to.

But that's exactly what happens in this book! The book starts with Jeff being abandoned by his mother, and the midpoint involves emotional rejection. I didn't pick up until now that Jeff's journey parallels Dicey's journey, partially because they react in such different ways — Homecoming externalizes Dicey's response and focuses it on her relationship with her siblings; Jeff's response is all interior (he has no siblings, and although the focus later becomes on his relationship with his father, that's a much later development and also a much different one). I think because of my particular situation I identify with Jeff and his interior responses so strongly that it overwhelms the squick, like, I have no trouble reading up to his mother's betrayal/emotional rejection at all because I empathize so much with him that my brain is focused on that? I'm still not quite sure if that's what's going on. Brains are weird. It's also true that my particular brain fleas don't fear the kind of damage Melody inflicts (like, that's diametrically opposed to any psychic damage that might or might not have been done to me) so there's some measure of protection there. [I wrote this before reading Homecoming, and now I have, and I have some additional/different ideas about this, but this is too long already. Another post about Homecoming should be coming soon :)] Anyway, the point of that long digression into my Issues is that it's really interesting to me how similar and how utterly, completely different their stories are.
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