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gameloveThe Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbrough
Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, April 2015
Reviewed from an ARC

Last week, I spent my time talking about unusual formats. This week, I’m not dealing with an unsual format — just straight up prose here, folks — but this title does have a unique feel. It’s like a fairy tale — it feels like a fairy tale, and uses some elements of a fairy tale — but it’s heavier than a fairy tale because it’s also an emotional/philosophical examination of what it means to be human, of what it means to love, to choose to love even though we will also, always, every time, lose. It’s really a beautiful read. Game has 4 stars and some buzz as well (there were people talking about it here last January).

All of which is great stuff to consider, and makes me think this one could have a shot in awards season. Additionally, this particular title is a mix of romance, magical realism, and historical fiction. Medals often reward the genre-mixing titles, and that combination might just be strong enough to take this all the way. However, I’m not without my quibbles, and RealCommittee might share them.

RealCommittee has a lot they could potentially be raving about: strong writing, strong characterization, strong setting. Brockenbrough does a fabulous job of writing, especially about music, of conveying sweet and sad melody that ties perfectly to her themes: “This was something unsettling here, something unpredictable, as if some set of rules, both written and unwritten, was being shattered like glass. The awareness of it dampened his forehead and made his blood sing, raising all the tiny hairs on his arms and the back of his neck.” There’s specificity in her descriptions, but also lushness and physicality. Another quote about music: “The tune had a meaty bass part for Henry, a sort of slow, sad, wistful walk up the strings that reminded Love of his favorite part of summer when the heat of the day broke and the light turned a soft purple, and the world was womb-warm and just as safe.”

The characters are well defined, and they’re carefully paired off. The pairs mirror and echo each other as individuals, but also reflect the other pairings in the story. Flora and Henry have had some similar experiences, but their circumstances are so different that rather than duplicating each other, they compliment each other. And the Flora/Henry pairing plays off the Love/Death pairing, and the Jack/Ethan pairing. It’s a read that is a little dreamlike; there are big and small connections made all over the text, and it feels a little like the connections you make in a dream — connections that feel hugely significant and are somehow all full of sensory images jumbled together.

This is elegant storytelling with big ideas. The connections that shape the story are embedded into the bones of the book, really. The mix of the genres is pretty fab. The magical realism and the romance play off of each other and deepen the resonance of the book’s themes. The historical fiction provides the atmospheric setting; it feels like a background but only because there’s just the right amount of detail and world building. The historical realities of the 30’s shape the characters (particularly Flora and Ethan), but the details don’t overshadow the story or the people.

So I’ve raved a lot, but…I feel a big but lurking around here anyway. Only it’s a very half baked sort of big but. It’s more of a question than an actual criticism. Well, maybe it’s two question-criticisms. First, the magical realism shifted at the end. Or maybe it’s that the rules of the magic changed. The magical realism was more intrusive at the end. Why? And…all those big questions, that all get wrapped up by being folded together into the mix of love and pain that is life — do those moments at the end tie things up too simply? I suspect that depends greatly on the people at the table. So although I have a lot of rave-sounding words for this book, it’s one I could see going either way come January.

What about you?


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