Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Written by Jane Yolen; Illustrated by Mike Cavallaro
First Second; $15.99
Foiled is an appropriate name for Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro’s story about a teen-aged fencing student. The pun works on a couple of levels. Not only does it describe the heroine’s efforts at handling her first crush; it also described my ability to predict where the story was going.
That can be good and bad. We want unpredictability in storytelling, but it can be a bit off-putting to think you’re reading one type of story and find out later that you’ve actually been reading a completely different one. Shutter Island is a good example of that. I won’t give any details in case you haven’t seen it yet, but it’ll suffice to say that something happens towards the end of that movie that makes you realize you’ve been fooled. In the group I saw it with, there were a couple of reactions to that. Some of us were thrilled by it. We’d suspected, if not exactly predicted, the real story and – thanks to the skill of the filmmakers – completely bought into it when it was revealed. Others of us didn’t like the new story so much and preferred to re-write it in our heads so that the original story was still the real one. Foiled operates in a similar way, but it’s not just the plot that tricks you. It’s the entire genre.
At this point, I need to include a spoiler warning. I’m not going to give away the ending, but I do need to talk about the shift in genre. While I was one of those who loved the twist in Shutter Island, I was thrown and distracted by the one in Foiled. In this particular case, I think I would’ve been able to enjoy the story much more had I been able to see a little better where it was taking me. In hindsight, I enjoyed it a lot. As I was going through it though, it could be frustrating.
After the break: Why it’s nice to know what genre you’re reading.
I should acknowledge that Jane Yolen knows exactly what she’s doing, by the way. She’s an experienced, award-winning author; not some beginner who found herself stuck at the end of the story and decided to throw in some aliens because she didn’t know what else to do. (There are no aliens in Foiled. That’s just an example.) What I’m trying to say is that Yolen’s switch in genre doesn’t come out of nowhere. She foreshadows the hell out of it and it makes perfect sense when the revelation comes. But that contributes to the problem.
The first half of Foiled reads like a romance. Aliera Carstairs is an excellent fencing student with little interest in boys until Avery Castle shows up at her high school. Avery is very cute and all the girls love him. Aliera likes him too, but that makes her nervous. She tries staying away from him, but that only lasts until they’re assigned each other as lab partners in Biology. She learns that he’s got a sick sense of humor and a bit of a mean streak, but he’s also smart and he thinks she’s funny. In spite of herself, she starts to fall for him.
Aliera’s after-school fencing lessons provide a handy metaphor for her relationship with Avery. Her coach is constantly telling her that – while she’s very good – she needs to defend herself better; protect her heart. Avery begins to distract her and make her sloppy, in both fencing and romance. Ordinarily, this would be plenty of story, especially when you add in Aliera’s wheelchair-bound cousin with whom Aliera plays Dungeons & Dragons every Saturday. When Avery asks Aliera on a date during her usual role-playing time, she has to choose between the cousin who looks up to and adores her and the not-really-that-safe boy who makes her feel all kinds of weird things.
Like I said, it sounds like a nice romance/coming-of-age story. And it’s wonderfully illustrated with drawings that let you right in to Aliera’s world. Cavallaro’s style is exact enough to get the details about fencing right (at least to my novice eyes) and make the environment seem real, but loose and expressive enough to clue us in to what Aliera’s thinking or feeling at any given moment without Yolen’s having to spell it out.
As a romance though, it’s flawed. Avery’s far too quirky and occasionally cruel to deserve Aliera. We understand why she might be interested in him, because the heart doesn’t necessarily care about anything beyond “cute” and “he thinks I’m funny,” but though it might be a realistic scenario, I never found myself hoping that they’d end up together. Maybe I’m getting old, but I hoped rather that Aliera would blow Avery off in favor of hanging out with her cousin. Flaws and all though, this would still be good, dramatic stuff if Foiled was a romance. The thing is, it isn’t.
There are reasons for Avery’s behavior. Fantastic ones. I won’t spoil what they are, but when I learned the truth I went, “Ahh. Of course!” Everything suddenly fit into place and it didn’t feel like a cheat. The problem was that learning the truth didn’t enhance my enjoyment of the story. Instead, I regretted the loss of the interestingly flawed romance I thought I’d been reading. I like the revelation – it’s cool – but it occurs too late in the story and – though foreshadowed – without enough warning. I wished I’d known earlier what kind of story I was reading so that I could enjoy it properly.
I’m guessing that it reads better the second time through.
Three out of five eyes suddenly opened.