Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

In The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, Calpurnia Tate is the only daughter of a wealthy family from Texas in 1899. At eleven years old, she just wants to explore her family's property and learn as much about natural science from her eccentric grandfather as she can. Her six brothers are given freedoms and opportunities that do not apply to her, though she tries to escape her mother's societal expectations of her with varying degrees of success. The novel follows her through the summer of 1899 and meanders with her as she learns about what she wants for her life, versus what society and her family will allow her to experience.

Part of me really appreciated the structure of this novel, although I really struggled to get behind it most of the time. There seemed to be very few plot points, rather it was literally discussing the life of a young girl in the summer and through the fall. I kind of liked the fact that it was not some inciting incident or major event that threw her entire life into a dizzying spin -- it was the small things that summer that really took hold of Calpurnia and shaped her into who she wanted to be. Most of the time, however, I was bored. The story itself was slow and each chapter seemed more like a vignette than a part of a functioning novel. This might work well in some instances, but add to that the fact that the writing itself was very basic. Though it bordered on blase, it felt like the author had very little trust in the reader to catch her poignant or ironic meanings. When something struck a symbolic chord or had any sort of deeper meaning, she would repeat it and make sure it was obvious. Given the fact that the book caters to a younger audience, this makes sense, however it was slightly more overt than necessary. It made the mundane parts seem even more mundane by comparison.

The most interesting aspect of the writing itself was the inclusion of excerpts from Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. The book is set around the time that Darwin's book was published and, given Calpurnia's love of science, this text plays a huge role in the novel. The excerpts served as little introductory thoughts into the theme of that particular chapter, which gave the reader beneficial grounding; since the chapters seemed to be strung together in chronological order rather than any other distinction, it was nice to have insight into where you were going.

The characters and themes were equally forgetable, I think. While I really liked the character of the grandfather and his growing relationship with Callie, he was almost too disinterested, and therefore made it difficult for me to have a vested interest in him. As a rule, I love eccentric, brilliant people and fictional characters, so I definitely appreciated him from that vantage point, but I'm not sure what there is about him that would set him apart from any other mad scientist grandfather. Similarly, I did not dislike Callie Vee or her family, I simply felt neutral toward them.

I think that might be what it comes down to, for me -- everything about this book was neutral. The statements about society were basically limited to the spread of scientific education and what a woman could be empowered to do in the late nineteenth/early eighteenth centuries, but even that seemed somewhat half-hearted. The novel was fine, but it wasn't special.

I don't know if my reaction to Calpurnia Tate stems from a lack of interest in science or the fact that I was reading things that I liked more at the same time I began it or if it was just the lack of plot, but I did not like it very much. I found it boring and wandering. The lack of resolution at the end was expected, but still somewhat disappointing. I don't consider myself a structuralist, but I think that young adult novels should be more purposeful than this.

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