Diva – Alex Flinn
Caitlin, who was abused by her 16-year-old boyfriend, Nick, in Flinn’s Breathing Underwater (HarperCollins, 2001), wants to put that relationship behind her. A talented opera singer, she gets into Miami High School for the Performing Arts despite her own nervousness and her mother’s objections. Even there she feels like an outcast as she can’t dance or sing pop and she obsesses about her weight. Her mother dresses like a teenager, is dating a married man, and seems to live off her ex-husband. At auditions, she meets another talented opera singer, Sean, but just as Caitlin’s starting to fall for him, she realizes he’s gay. While she’s struggling to put all this into perspective, her singing instructor suggests that she try out for a summer opera program in New York. In the end, the teenager patches things up with her ex, who has reformed through counseling. After she gains new respect for her mother, and new confidence, she decides to pursue her dream and is accepted to the program in New York. Caitlin tells her story partly through online journal entries. Although her understanding of her mother comes too rapidly, this is a solid story, full of self-deprecating humor, snappy dialogue, and well-developed characters and situations.
I’m too weird for the cheerleader crowd and too cheerleader for the weird crowd.
I had some pretty high hopes for this book, since I read Beastly last year and absolutely adored it. I haven’t read the prequel to this, Breathing Underwater, but I did perfectly okay in the story without it, I think. Diva doesn’t quite have that same “wow” factor as Beastly, but it doesn’t really leave you disappointed either. I didn’t really get anything significant out of this book that would keep it in my mind for a while, other than a slightly unconventional ending, or a nice, comfortable Friday night read.
The story features a lot of intense relationships around the protagonist Caitlin, aspiring opera goddess, former Mean Girl, and overly weight-conscious without the diagnozed disorder. We have the abusive ex-boyfriend. The ignorant father with his new family. The mother who refuses to grow up or grow old. But despite the somewhat ugly representations of the minor characters, no one’s purely evil or purely good. That’s the important point about the book, and perhaps its strongest quality – it doesn’t make excuses for anyone, but it doesn’t paint a plethora of Cruella De Vils either. There’s good and bad in everyone, which makes the characters actually seem… human.
Let’s go back to the first person I mentioned – Nick, the battering ex. Interestingly, I’ve been reading a lot of books lately with abusive relationships used as significant plot points. It seems simple in hypothetical sense, right? Guy hits girl, girl says goodbye. Period. So why do the modern day Rihannas stick around? Diva explores that in a simple but effective way, and makes you realize that abuse is a really complicated issue that doesn’t belong in a black-and-white point of view. There’s a really poignant quote in the book that sort of addresses the mindset of an abuse victim in a relationship:
It was so easy being his girlfriend.
Except when it wasn’t.
And then there’s the “prospective love interest” Sean, who really seems like Caitlin’s soulmate with his artistic sense. The book introduces him in the words “skinny and wears a purple unitard”… which was where my brilliant mind totally wandered off towards another guy, gyrating by a pool in a purple unitard, who amused me a great many nights in college…
But I digress.
Alex Flinn’s done a really clever thing in the Sean-Caitlin angle – she’s made Caitlin so completely self-conscious and clueless, that even I couldn’t figure out why Sean would be acting a certain way… until I’d flip back a few pages and have an “ohhhh, I see what you did tharrrr!” moment. Masterful stuff. Or I’m just really slow. Could be either. But you might be thrown for a few loops yourself
Caitlin draws a lot of comparisons between her life and the drama world, turning theatrical scenarios into some interesting analogies for her own family and friends. For instance, she refers to the play The Glass Menagerie:
Gigi plays Laura, a shy girl who’s such a mess she can’t even go to a typing class without puking on the floor. I play Amanda, Laura’s witch of a mother, who lives in this dreamworld of the past where she was belle of the ball. She can’t handle that she’s stuck with no husband and a loser daughter.
Yes, I’m playing my mother. Miss Davis assigned the parts.
Actually, the Glass Menagerie scene is sort of pivotal in terms of character development, so I won’t spoil it any further. But despite my far-from-Broadway background, I get where they’re coming from in bits and pieces. I mean, they read Stargirl. They rehearse songs from Rent and La Boheme, and audition with Hairspray hits. I’d like to take a moment here to say a special thank you to Hollywood and to my college lunch table for making me somewhat theatre-literate.
My favorite part of this novel, by a mile, was the cafeteria scene. Any time you’re reading a novel about high school, you know you look for this scene. Is it going to be a generic Hollywood scene? Or are they going to pull out a new one? Well, rest assured, people – this is one scene you probably won’t have seen in your hallowed halls:
At one table, a group of art kids talk about “basic color principles” and use words like “chiaroscuro” with a brazen lack of fear of being beaten up. At another, some people look at sheet music and burst into song between bites of spaghetti.
A guy at the next table screams, “Fight for your manhood, you pathetic little vegetable!” I stare, startled, then realize they’re reading a scene from a play.
At the next table, someone starts some music, a sort of Latino fusion thing, really loud. A bunch of people start dancing a conga around the tables, and the guy named Gus actually gets on the table and reaches out to grab a girl to join them.
Classic. I suddenly wish I went to a high school for artists. And I’m a science nerd. It truly is, as one of the characters puts it, “running screaming from conformity.”
The story’s told partly in livejournal posts by Caitlin. Which is useful, you know, in terms of reading her mind, I suppose. But the shorthand hurt my brain. It reminds me why I stopped following my friends’ blogs in the first place. Random abbreviations, numbers replacing words and bad grammar in general might very well be the death of me someday.
But this is no love story, nor is it really a high school drama. It’s a story about teenage insecurity. Other people aren’t fat. They’re not bogged down by mundane things like insecurity. And they’re all so much more damned talented than I am. Unlike moi. This is a story about accepting yourself for who you are, and learning about the people you love (or don’t). Caitlin learns the reality about her parents, what real friends look like, and how to be true to herself, and how to be secure in her own body. And in the end, all you can do is sigh and eat yourself a donut, telling yourself you don’t care what the world thinks. You’re awesome.
Okay, maybe that’s just me.
Rating: 3/5 crowns (Watch out for them “Mean Girls” fantasies… classic stuff!)
Life lesson learned: Whenever you say, “What are the odds?” the odds-gods automatically up them to 100% certainty.