The Tragedy Paper
One may expect tragedy to be the driving force in a novel so aptly titled THE TRAGEDY PAPER, and this assumption is not unwarranted, especially given the fact that the two main characters are named Macbeth and Duncan and the novel revolves around a mysterious tragic event that has altered both boys' lives. However, beyond tragedy, tradition plays just as central a role in Elizabeth Laban's novel. This is likely because Irving School, the prestigious (albeit fictitious) boarding school where most of the novel takes place, has many traditions that both the students and staff participate in and pass down year after year. These include, a student-planned, secret senior event; the "treasures" seniors leave for the juniors that inherit their rooms; and the Tragedy Paper itself, a kind of senior thesis every student must complete before graduating. It is the combination of these three traditions that connect Duncan and Tim in ways that become increasingly apparent throughout the novel.
"Elizabeth Laban has written a lovely, complex coming-of-age tale that I won't soon forget."
When we first meet Duncan, he is about to walk into the senior dorms to find his new room and the treasure that awaits him within it. When he realizes he has inherited the room that last year belonged to Tim, an albino with whom he has a fraught history, he is disappointed. However, when he discovers that the treasure Tim left him is a bunch of CDs on which Tim has recorded the story of his brief time at Irving School, Duncan becomes intrigued, an emotion that slowly turns to obsession as he continues to get sucked into Tim's story.
THE TRAGEDY PAPER is separated into two interspersed narratives, one following Duncan through his senior year at Irving Prep and the other, Tim's record of his own senior year. It is to Elizabeth Laban's credit that both are equally engaging. Tim's narrative is mostly concerned with his affair with the popular (and taken) Vanessa, and the poor decisions he makes because of his overwhelming feelings for her. Duncan's is about his own experiences with first love, and how the guilt he feels over an incident that happened the year previous involving Tim and Vanessa affects this budding relationship and his sanity. Laban does a great job paralleling the two boys' experiences, ultimately illustrating how strong emotions can cloud one's judgement and, if one isn't careful, lead to unfortunate outcomes. The first person narrative in Tim's section allows one to feel closer to him and to empathize with him even when he is making decisions that could adversely affect his health. Similarly, the combination of factors that cause Duncan to withdraw from his girlfriend and friends are very well explored.
It is because both of these characters are so well written and their inner thoughts and motivations so well drawn, that it is unfortunate to note that the female characters are not as clearly defined. Duncan's love interest, Daisy, is pretty much a non-entity, and Vanessa is so mercurial that her hot and cold attitude towards Tim comes off as callous when I don't think it's meant to seem that way. However, that I couldn't really get a handle on Vanessa may have to do with the fact that she is only seen through Tim's eyes, and he spends most of the novel confused about her feelings towards him, a confusion that translates to the reader. Yet that is my only quibble. The other supporting characters, specifically Vanessa's boyfriend and the school English teacher, are very interesting.
The novel itself has much less to do with Tim and Vanessa's romance than with the decisions he makes as a result of his feelings for her and the way those decisions affect every character in the novel. Tim and Duncan are not presented as perfect heroes, but as flawed human beings who don't always know what to do or the right way to act. The ending, too, is perfectly suited to the novel, refusing to wrap up plot points with neat little bows or let us know exactly what will happen with some of the character's relationships. I especially like the way tradition and tragedy informed every aspect of the novel, from the plot to the characters to the themes. Elizabeth Laban has written a lovely, complex coming-of-age tale that I won't soon forget.
Reviewed by Erin Allen on December 18, 2012