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Friday, December 16, 2011

So Shelly by Ty Roth

Until now, high school junior, John Keats, has only tiptoed near the edges of the vortex that is schoolmate and literary prodigy, Gordon Byron. That is, until their mutual friend, Shelly, drowns in a sailing accident.

After stealing Shelly's ashes from her wake at Trinity Catholic High School, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie island where Shelly's body had washed ashore and to where she wished to be returned. It would be one last "so Shelly" romantic quest. At least that's what they think. As they navigate around the obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly's and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her tragic and premature end.

This was one book I was very interested in reading. I adore classic novels, and I have read some Byron, Keats, and both the Shelleys (the Shelly in the novel is based on both Mary and Percy). So when I heard about the concept and the idea of So Shelly I was immediatly hooked. I checked out the book from my local library, read some promotional things from the publisher -- Random House -- on the novel, and scoured around Ty Roth's website. I put it at the top of my to-read list and stayed up until eleven thirty reading the book.

So what did I think? Though I had a few complaints and concerns, I found So Shelly to be a novel that was pretty darn good.

The story transposes the lives of Keats, Byron, and Mary and Percy Shelley both combined into one character (the Shelly of the title) and puts them into modern day. Many of the characters and events remain, as the author explains in a note, and most of the changes were only to make the characters seem more modern and not, well, 18th-century writers.

John Keats, our narrator, has stayed away from Gordon Byron his entire high school career. Gordon is brave, crooning, and all the women love him. Keats finds him terrifying and prefers to stay home and write. The two share one connection, though: both being friends with Michelle "Shelly" Shelley. Shelly has recently drowned in a sailboat accident, and the two recconect at her funeral. Gordon hatches a plan to steal her ashes, and with the container in hand they head towards the lake where Shelly drowned. As they drive, the two remember their memories of each other and Shelly and try to decide what led her to drown herself.

The book isn't about Shelly, though. It's about Gordon. At least 50% of the book is about him. And everything about him is his sexual conquests. Roth heaps on conquest after conquests, telling of Gordon's many affairs, infatuations with girls, and more. Some of it seems a bit unrealistic -- his writing a YA vampire novel as a jab to the current  YA industry and the fact that Gordon was on a Greek terrorist squad -- but I had one major concern with the focus on him. It essentially was the same sexual situation over and over. He met a girl, seduced her, they had sex, and then the girl/teacher/friend was either suspended from school, fired, or dumped as quickly as her relationship with Gordon ignited. It was basically the same sexual conquest in every chapter, only with a different setting and time (the book jumps from Gordon and Shelly's childhood until their senior year in high school). He was an interesting character, but I think the author could have shown his many sexual conquests -- which were true to life of the real Lord Byron -- in different ways.

Keats is barely in the story. He narrates and explains things, adding in small little quirks that the readers will smirk at. He "writes" the story as it is explained in the prologue, but other than that is barely in the story. Most of the scenes are about Shelly, Gordon, and Gordon's many women. He barely has a purpose in the story other than to tell it, and his resource for getting the information is contrived. He supposedly got the information from a drunk Shelly over ten hours(!) and the event is mentioned once in the story and then dropped, like the author didn't care. He could have probably been dropped from the story and not much would have changed, or the author could have used third person instead.

I liked the historical details behind the book, and after you read the author's note the events seem much better. The writing is quite fluid and goregous, and I rarely see books about classic novelists in YA. I think that Roth has a chance to improve and when he publishes his next novel I'll be interested in reading it. (It might not be soon, though; he posted on his blog that he had sent a draft to Random House and they had rejected it.)

So some flaws, but a pretty interesting romp through the Romantic Era, with quite a few ties with Romanticism that will remain with readers. I'd recommend it more for history lovers; people less interested in history may get bored, specifically those that know little about Romantic poets (I reccommend reading the author's note first if you don't know much about the Shelleys, Keats, and Byron).

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