Right before I started reading and reviewing for CBR3 (seriously, like a day before), I read One Day by David Nicholls. I was completely taken in by its he said/she said narrative style, and even though I thought Dex was a jerk, and honestly wasn’t all that enthralled by Emma, there was something about the style and the language that just swept me up and carried me along for the ride. I almost — but not quite — felt the same way about The Tragedy Paper, the debut novel by Elizabeth Laban.
The Tragedy Paper is the story of Duncan, a senior at a boarding school in New York. On the first day of school, the seniors find out their dorm room assignments, and also find out what kind of gift has been left for them from the student who lived there last year. Duncan gets the exact room that he didn’t want, and isn’t too thrilled about his gift either — a stack of cds with an audio story from last year’s senior, Tim Macbeth. Each senior at the school is expected to write a term paper for their english class titled “The Tragedy Paper,” which should be about tragedy in literature and life. Tim’s cds tell Duncan that his story will more or less serve Duncan his tragedy paper on a silver platter, a tragic story if there ever was one.
The story is told with alternating voices: Duncan tells the story in the present, and Tim takes the bulk of the narrative, telling the story of the prior semester and unraveling the mystery of what happened to him and the girl that he loved, the beautiful Vanessa.
Oh, and did I mention that Tim is an albino and isn’t exactly Mr. Popularity?
At first, Duncan can’t stop listening to Tim. He’s obsessed with the secret story of the relationship between Tim and Vanessa. Tim’s words and actions inspire Duncan to be a better man — and get him to finally tell his crush Daisy how he feels. But after a while, he can’t listen anymore. He knows the story has a terrible ending, and can’t forgive himself for the part that he played in it.
Laban has a way with words, for sure. As the details of the mystery come out, I became more and more involved in what was happening to Tim and Vanessa. I was dreading the last few chapters, as I really didn’t want anything bad to happen to these lovely characters, who talked and acted like real, living people.
There’s something about the ending — something that I can’t quite put my finger on — that was a bit off-putting. Its almost as if Laban took some of the more well-known boarding school stories (A Separate Peace, The Secret History, etc.), and followed their lead that the ending had to be over-the-top tragic. I’m not sure that the book might have impressed me more if the ending of the book had been a bit more realistic — teenagers don’t need an actual tragic incident in their lives in order to define tragedy, living the life of a teen is tragic enough for most.