Young adult fiction coming-of-age stories are a particular favourite of mine, even though (or perhaps because) the protagonist inevitably comes across as somewhat pretentious (as I’m sure I used to come across, and likely still do now sometimes). For I too am misunderstood, have great taste in music, and am by turns deeply cynical and dramatically sincere.
As a bookish, emotionally troubled, slightly left of field high school kid, I read a lot of books about bookish, emotionally troubled, slightly left of field high school kids. Give me Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, give me any of those John Green protagonists, give me Nick and Norah and their infinite playlist. Give me Matthew Quick’s new novel, Every Exquisite Thing. Yet, like any genre, there are dangerous cliches that make me a wary reader.
For much of Every Exquisite Thing, Nanette O’Hare comes across as a typical protagonist in a young adult, coming-of-age novel. She doesn’t drink or have sex, nor does she enjoy parties or top 40 music. She’s very close to her English teacher, a classic trope of the literate teen in American young adult novels. This is where Every Exquisite Thing begins: Nanette’s teacher gives her an obscure, out-of-print book called The Bubblegum Reaper, about a disenfranchised teen called Wrigley. Wrigley is in love with a girl he had a deep conversation with, but the problem is that she’s a twin, and he can’t be sure which twin it is. He’s desperately romantic, and also desperate angry at life. He talks a lot about wanting to “quit” – what he wants to quit is the subject of much debate amongst the characters in Every Exquisite Thing, as the book is a cult favourite amongst certain types – the types that would be the protagonists of their own coming-of-age novels.
Nanette befriends the book’s author, Booker, who takes her under his wing, introducing her to poetry of Charles Bukowski, whose work resonates with Nanette, and Alex, her future love interest. ‘Little Lex’ is a champion of the bullied, having experienced it himself. He’s the type who loves Bukowski and Los Campesinos!, as well as The Bubblegum Reaper, of course.
It’s hard to condense the plot into a review, because so much happens in the course of Nanette’s year. The main narrative concerns Nanette and Alex as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of the book and their growing romance. However, Nanette also struggles with her high school friends, her feelings towards soccer, her parents’ rocky marriage, and her mental health. It’s a tumultuous story and it’s to Quick’s credit that the book so easy to devour, with all aspects of Nanette’s life articulated well.
However, the best part of Quick’s writing is that he holds characters to account. Where many coming-of-age stories featuring mentally ill (or at least emotionally troubled) characters tend to treat those characters as more or less infallible, or at least above reproach, the characters in Every Exquisite Thing don’t have an issue with taking Nanette to task, and readers will sometimes side with Nanette and sometimes side with other characters. He also deals with the idea of first loves deftly, with characters questioning the intentions of their feelings in a way that is completely believable. Both Nanette and Alex change tremendously throughout the course of the story, in small ways (Nanette does eventually realise that Bukowski is kind of a dick, thank god), and in big ways (that would be spoilers).
I went into Every Exquisite Thing highly skeptical of yet another pretentious, troubled high school kid protagonist, but left with a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head. Has a singular work of fiction deeply affected my worldview? Have I ever been so obsessed with a work of fiction that it consumed me in a negative way? Do I view some people as plot devices in my life instead of real people? How do I be happy but make others happy? Why is Bukowski such a dickhead? So now I have a lot of questions, not many answers, and a deep appreciation of Matthews Quick, Nanette O’Hare, and Every Exquisite Thing.
Every Exquisite Thing is out now.