Review of “Find Me” by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg’s Find Me explores the mind of Joy, an orphaned cough syrup addict, as she experiences life after the potential end of American civilization.  The novel opens during Joy’s stay (or imprisonment) in a hospital searching for the cure to a disease that wipes the memories of its victims before taking their lives. Eventually, Joy escapes and wanders in search of her biological mother in a dystopian landscape. Although the novel seeks to be a more distinctive narrative in a sea of dystopian novels, Find Me maintains a sub-par impression upon the reader. Ultimately, van den Berg confuses and continually loses touch with her readers through spoon-feeding themes, disclosing unnecessary information, frequently using clichés, and distracting the reader with a jumbled organizational structure.

Throughout the novel, van den Berg spoon-feeds her audience with overstated messages of profundity. Rather than allowing the reader to dissect the possible meanings of the work, such as the importance of belonging and being found, one is bombarded by statements such as, “To be looked for is to matter” (223). The theme of the novel is not open to interpretation and discussion. Thus, the narrative feels simple and interest diminishes.

Along with overstating themes, van den Berg frequently reveals information that neither affects its plot nor its message. In the second half of the novel, a character is hinted to possess psychic or predictive abilities (176). One would believe that such a profound disclosure would affect the premise of the plot, but it did not affect any element of the novel. It was not relevant at the time of its revelation, and it continued to stay irrelevant. If the author’s intention was to add depth to the character, or to garner interest, it did not appear as such. Sequentially, the disclosure of irrelevant information invoked feelings of disappointment and confusion.

Peppered throughout Find Me, clichés particularly common to young-adult dystopian novels frustrate the reader. Towards the beginning of the novel, as Joy is reliving a memory where she watches reruns of “The X-Files,” she states, “I’ve never liked the things girls my age are supposed to” (34). This overused statement not only turns off the reader, but feels mildly condescending. What are 19-year-old girls supposed to like? Why must Joy declare how she’s “not like other girls”? One cannot help but interpret Joy’s declaration of difference as a method of implying superiority to stereotypically feminine women. Furthermore, as the novel continues, Joy engages in sexual activity with her roommate in the hospital and does not shower for days to hold fast to his scent. Her desperate hold on her moments with him has a poetic appeal, but feels empty; reactions to physical love such as this have been overused in romance novels and films. As a result, the many clichés of Find Me contribute to its lack of distinction in the dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre.

Along with relaying random information and overusing clichés, van den Berg distracts readers with the confusing structure of the novel. Although it is predictable, with one chapter relating the present and the next revealing the past, it distracts from the plot. The reader can easily get lost along the way by forgetting the most recent events and constantly attempting to retain information about the past. Some of the chapters reveal disturbing qualities of Joy’s past that add emotional depth to her narrative, but others feel random and unnecessary. For example, the larger portion of chapter 18 is dedicated to stating facts about Norway and the origin of the disease that has ravaged America. While the disease has arguably caused the events of Find Me, and Norway is the home to a minor character, the information given about the two falls flat, thus unnecessarily interrupting the progression of the plot. Further assisting in the disruption of the novel’s flow was van den Berg’s consistent use of three-dot breaks. For example, within the span of the five pages of chapter 40, three-dot breaks appear 10 times. The excited thoughts that Joy experiences could easily have been encapsulated in paragraph form. The information instead reads as overexaggerated and encourages the reader to rapidly skim through it in anticipation of the last page. The chapter, along with the many others that exude the same love of scene breaks, resultantly reads as choppy, scattered, and lacking in cohesiveness. Laura van den Berg’s writing style ultimately detracts from the reader’s consumption of her work.

Although Find Me loses touch with its readers, it still has some charm. Van den Berg’s use of imagery was imaginative. When Joy experiments with an unknown drug, she states, “my brain is a blue jellyfish that has crawled out through my ear and is hovering somewhere along the roof of the tunnel, happy to finally be free of the body” (225). An experience with drugs may prove difficult to convincingly describe, but van den Berg has accomplished it without seeming stereotypical or overdramatic. Additionally, the language was well-written; the tone felt conversational, yet still possessed gravity and poetic qualities in the right places. The positive elements of the overall work do not cover for its flaws, but they are still present and worth considering.

Fundamentally, explicitly stated themes, excess information, the overwhelming use of clichés, and a distracting writing style effectively contribute to the lackluster impression of Find Me. If the novel had better confronted its themes without overstating them, readers would be able to fully appreciate the novel. However, its audience instead becomes disinterested and lost in a book about the act of finding.


Laura van den BergAbout the Author: Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. Find Me is her first novel, which was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, and others.

 


About the Author of this Post: Ashley Suslowicz is a freshman at North Central College majoring in English and minoring in Sociology. After finishing her undergraduate studies, she plans to attend law school near Chicago. She loves Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and coffee.

Review of “Find Me” by Laura van den Berg

laura_van_den_berg_2015Ever been at a point in your life, wondering where you belong? Ever feel like you have no place in this world, that you’re just drifting through life on autopilot? This is how nineteen-year-old Joy Jones has spent her life. Abandoned as in infant on the steps of a hospital, Joy had spent the her childhood and teens in group and foster homes, haunted by the constant feeling of unwantedness until she aged out of the system. She spends her days working a graveyard shift at a Stop & Shop, nursing an addiction to Robitussin, in hopes of keeping the memories of her troubled past at bay. She lives alone in a basement of an apartment building that has no windows, stating that her apartment is “like a tomb, the door a seal-would I ever get out?” As Joy questions the meaning of her existence, a sickness threatens to ravage the United States. With no official name, “the sickness” is a disease that causes individuals to suffer silver sores, memory loss and immediate death. One day, Joy is approached by a man in a hazmat suit, who invites her to join a program at the Hospital to find a cure for “the sickness”-as Joy discovers that she is immune to the disease. While she and seventy-three others are subjected to questionable treatments, she forms fragile bonds with some of the patients (like her roommate, Louis and the twins Christopher and Sam). As winter approaches, Joy breaks free and sets on a journey to find her birth mother, unknowingly unlocking the secrets to her past that she tried so desperately to hide, while also finding meaning in her life and what it means to love someone unconditionally.

I found “Find Me” to be a very compelling and unique read. Van den Berg is widely known for her short story works (“Isle of Youth” and “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leave Us”), so for this to be her first attempt at writing a novel, I give it a three out of five stars.

First, the novel is split into two journeys: we begin with the Hospital where Joy is being held. She narrates her experience there, as well as recalls her life before the Hospital in (mostly) innate detail. The second half, Joy makes a cross-country trek to California to confront the mother she never knew, chronicling her trials and tribulations as well as discovering her self-worth. I liked how the author establishes the character (Joy) very well throughout the novel. Her voice can be heard clearly; it was like she was speaking directly to me because Joy was speaking, not only to herself but to someone who was willing to listen. For example: “I got on the wrong bus. I was not awake and not asleep and when I looked out the window, I was in Kendall Square. The bus stopped. I got out. The sky was a bruise. I was unsure of the time.” Joy’s attention to every detail pertains the theme that memory serves in the novel, particularly the first part when she is in the Hospital.

Unfortunately, this theme sort of dies down once she leaves the Hospital, causing the novel to lose some of its drive. The whole sickness is revolved around the recurring theme of memory, so it was disappointing when van den Berg strayed from it. I also noticed the novel tends to drag on a bit. Parts becomes stagnant when Joy is on the road (jumping from bus to bus, suddenly running into a childhood friend, getting trapped in a “haunted house”).

Some readers may find the narration a bit confusing and strange; Joy often goes off on tangents (habits of listing things off to prove that she’s not sick) and the narration often jumps back and forth between the past and the present, such when she is talking about “the sickness” and then switches to her childhood (the past): “Experts now say that the toll could be worse than the 1918 influenza, which left half a million Americans dead…. When I was a child, I lived for a time with a boy I grew to love.” Even though it might perplex a few readers at first, the author’s grammar and cues in the book helped establish the sudden switch.

All in all, I’d give this novel a three out of five for its unique take on a post-apocalyptic America with a female lead that struggles to find her worth in a world that is struggling to put itself back together.


About the Author: Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first novel, Find Me, published by FSG in 2015, was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, and BuzzFeed, among others, in addition to being longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize.


About the Author of this Post: Tiara Hawkins