Review of The Great, Wide World Part 1

The prompt: Write a review of your life as if it were a movie or a book.

The Great, Wide World: Part 1 is, at heart, an existential story of self definition.  The protagonist is not as iconic as Holden Caulfield, but then she is not as petulant either.  What makes her tale unique is that unlike many journeymen protagonists, she has a clear mission from the start–live life as a story.

She is half successful and half not.  Her misadventures consist of years of passivity and an acceptance of the status quo which can only be described as irritating.  When she makes a career decision to teach in her early twenties, she spends several years floundering in admin assistant jobs.  When one of those jobs shows her gallingly disrespected, our heroine doesn’t stand up for herself, she lies down and takes it–until she gets fired.  Everyone wanted to see a scene where she stands up for herself, but instead she lets things continue on other people’s terms, and that is where she fails as a heroine.  Heroes are meant to be in control of their decisions, if nothing else, no matter how misguided those decisions may be.  Romeo may declare himself ‘Fortune’s fool’ but he’s the one who draws the sword on Tybalt.  The protagonist often leaves her weapons of defense and attack safely sheathed, leaving the audience hungry for more conflict and less whinging.

The romantic plot moves slowly for the same reason.  Her early love to a secretly gay boy in high school is endearing and sweet, and the moment where she cuts ties with him angrily and abruptly in college to move on to greener pastures is an empowering moment.  The college years show some promise as she juggles a love triangle, but things fall flat when the second romantic lead is introduced, as he is a flat, bland character, who seems to have both little spark and little interest in her.  What’s perhaps most grating about this part is to see how utterly smitten she is with a guy who’s so bland and so cruel to her.  It is perhaps realistic, as everyone makes that mistake, but her stupidity is not compelling or even sympathy inspiring.  Most frustrating of all is that once in this relationship, she doggedly sticks to it.  When she goes abroad to Paris and meets a truly handsome, charming guy who obviously could create a whirlwind romance in the City of Love, she flat out ignores his advances because of her ridiculous loyalty.  It becomes easy then for the audience to lose sympathy for the character, and even moreso when she sticks to this relationship as it flounders in the sweaty heat of North Carolina.  We see her contemplating ending things and cheer her on, only to watch her resubmit herself to the relationship until her chemist boyfriend who could be an additional character on The Big Bang Theory, he is so stereotypically nerdy, breaks it off with her, again leaving the audience without a sense of dramatic satisfaction.

However, her adventures, when she allows herself to be in control of her destiny, allow her to shape a life which is like the stories she so admires.  In fact, when she takes the reins, she is far more powerful than her literary heroes – Francie Nolan of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Emily Starr of L.M. Montgomery’s lesser known series of books.  Like these characters, and perhaps because of them, she is a dreamer, imagining grander things for herself and a whole world at her feet.  She also has their determination, and when put in full force she uses it to accomplish the things she wants with aplomb.  The setpiece for this is a seemingly simply high school dream–to be in the prestigious concert band by junior year even though she just started playing the flute as a freshman.  But this does not turn the story into Glee–rather we see her determination and hours of practice to learn the flute and be successful.  This same steel will carries her to France and into a career teaching.  When motivated she is powerful, and the story is an uplifting tour de force, but all too often it gets bogged down in pedantics.

The third act romance is the best example of this double sided coin.  After her breakup with the nerd extraordinaire, she languishes for years being depressed about him and swears that she’ll never let herself be such a fool–so her solution is to shut herself away from the world of men, yet be surprised that men don’t come to Rapunzel’s tower when she refuses to grow her hair.

The twist of actually finding someone is almost too simple–one day, a English friend simply suggests she meet a coworker friend. Our heroine agrees with alacrity and a digital relationship ensues.  The heroine and her paramour have very little romantic tension–before they even meet they seem to agree on a future together.  A whirlwind love story ensues, and the couple are engaged without any of the classic misunderstandings, obstacles of pride, or dissimilar feelings.  This would feel anticlimactic if it weren’t for the fact that together the pair face immigration problems.  Somehow they turn the  pedantry of bureaucracy into a story with real emotional heft–how will they be together?  Will she leave her life behind?  The denouement leaves the reader with a feeling of triumph but also the depth of a lesson learned.

What really carries the story, though, is the supporting cast.  Her mother bucks the trend, and instead of being an antagonist, supports our heroine and plays a supportive, caring role, developing a close relationship with the heroine that sustains her.  The protagonist spends a few lonely years, but by age 14 she finds a group of friends who become close on a Judy Blume level.  These friends stay with her through everything, and their humor, compassion, and depth would make the Sex and the City girls jealous.  It is a true delight to see that such loyal, loving and fun friends exist in the real world.  Her final paramour makes up for the duller version of Revenge of the Nerds character in the first act.  He is charming and thoughtful, but has enough mischief to keep him from being too bland or saccharine.

Overall, the story is a satisfying adventure.  There is still a part two to come, and there is the perennial danger with sequels, that the characters may continue to tread tired paths.  But with motherhood, questions of belonging and nationality and some as yet unfulfilled dreams on the horizon, there is plenty to keep our heroine’s story compelling into the future.

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