Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review: Various Positions by Martha Schabas

First appeared on Goodreads, February 10, 2012

Various Positions is the story of a deeply misguided girl and her attempts to find a little meaning in life through sex.

If you just imagined that Georgia turns into a nymphomaniac, congratulations, you totally missed the point. Then again, so does she. So does the entire book. 

Fair warning: This review contains spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers. I cannot discuss it without spoiling it. If that bothers anyone, then sorry - I want to explain properly why I rated it the way I did. 

Georgia is 14 years old when she passes the audition to enter a prestigious ballet academy. She's thrilled, of course, because ballet is the alpha and omega of her life. There are hints about some troubles with her family early on in the novel, and that she only feels complete when she dances. Things get even better when she gets singled out by her very strict instructor as promising, and he encourages her to be the best in what she does.

Roderick is a strange subversion of the hot mentor trope, in that he has absolutely no interest in sex and actually considers it as a ruining factor for the dancers. Throughout the novel, he is especially cruel towards those girls who "don't have their priorities straight", which is fine with Georgia... until she becomes curious about sex. From there on, things snowball into disaster.

Alright, first things first. As you might have noticed already, this isn't your average YA novel, not by a long shot. In fact, it barely qualifies as one - not because of the subject matter, but because of how it is handled. For the first half of the novel, Georgia's voice is mature beyond her years, using phrases that are way too mature for any 14 year old. But don't worry - the maturity of the voice is only superficial - as the story progresses, Georgia acts like a fourteen year old, though her voice doesn't even out. 

We're also treated to subplots with very bizzare twists, such as the "mystery" surrounding her parents' marriage and her birth, and the fact that she encourages Chantal, another dancer, to become anorexic.

But subplots and unbelievable character voice were not what made this an unsatisfactory read for me. 

Throughout the novel, sex plays a vital role in Georgia's character arc. She starts off as being scared of it, a fact not aided by an unpleasant experience with a boy at a party. She thinks of ballet as her salvation, as the bodies of dancers are not sexualized. Then, however, she becomes curious and attracted to her instructor, and starts to think that maybe he reciprocates her attraction. She then goes on to do something incredibly risky (and stupid) just in the middle of a trial for the school - having discovered their daughter's anorexia, Chantal's parents bring inspectors to the school and threaten to sue. The result of this is that Roderick resigns. Meanwhile, Georgia loses her virginity at a party, while inebriated, to a boy she doesn't even like. This leads her to realize that Roderick was right all along in believing sex to be a distraction for dancing.

She then proceeds to take all the blame for the fiasco, leaving the academy and (presumably) giving Roderick a chance to resume his position as a teacher. The novel closes with her attending another audition to a different school, along with a now discharged Chantal, confident in her belief that sex is unnecessary and ready to be the best she has ever been as a dancer.

But what about Roderick, you're probably asking. Well, the novel is pretty ambiguous on that front. We only see him through the lens of Georgia's eyes and, from that place, he does look pretty innocent. He doesn't make a move on her - she does. He never outright propositions to her, or does anything other than being ridiculously dedicated to his job. He's made out to look innocent in this affair (and, indeed, Georgia's family background makes us easily believe that she was seeing more where there was none), but as a teacher in a position of power, one might argue that he should have known better.

Now, whether he is blameless or not is something that may never be answered, because the novel doesn't address this at all. In fact, it doesn't address anything surrounding Georgia - not her relationship with her parents, not her relationship with Roderick, not her relationship with Chantal. The only relationship that is addressed is the one with her feminist half-sister Isabel, and that... doesn't end well.

See, Isabel is a bit of a stand-in for the readers in this book. She's not only very intelligent (at one point applying Julia Kristeva's theories to reality TV), but she's also the only adult in Georgia's life who actually acts responsibly. When her sister tells her a little about what she's done, Isabel assumes (correctly), that Georgia had been taken advantage of and goes to someone who might help. The same thing happens with another girl, Laura, who is Georgia's friend and who, after happening upon some compromising pictures, takes them to the principle.

Both of these girls do what any reasonable person might when they suspect Georgia was coerced into having sex with a teacher. But their actions completely ruin their friendships with her. What's more, as we see in the final chapter, Georgia still hasn't forgiven Isabel, and feels righteous about everything that's happened.

Which is where the problem begins. What was the ultimate purpose of this book? Was it to show Georgia's growth and her awakening to the truths of life? Or was it to terrify us with its portrayal of a completely dysfunctional upbringing?

If the former, it obviously doesn't work - Georgia is completely comfortable in her blindness and she's not inclined to change. She never comes to terms with the fact that she directly contributed to her friend's anorexia, and never sees this as wrong. She never confronts her parents, or questions her choices. Ultimately, there is no payoff.

If the book wanted to terrify its readers, it achieved its purpose. But to what end? Was there any point to it, other than to shock and titillate? Why bring up all these issues, create these complex characters, and then do nothing with them? 

I think that, ultimately, this book is a whole lot of wasted potential. Which is a shame, because it's so engagingly written.

Note: A copy of this book was provided by the publishers via NetGalley.

Note no 2: Image via Goodreads.

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