Review of Solitaire by Alice Oseman
by Alice Oseman
Oof. Honestly, still trying to work out how I feel about this book, so this review might be a little rough. Radio Silence was one of the best books I will have read this year, hands down, even though it was like the second book I read this year. I recognize some of that Alice Oseman in Solitaire, but reading this after reading the incredible Radio Silence was a real letdown. This book feels like a debut novel hard.
Trigger warnings in this book for depictions of self-harm, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts.
Solitaire is about Tori Spring, a Year 12 student who doesn’t really have any close friends. She spends most of her time keeping to herself, reading blogs and doing worse on her coursework than she should be. For someone so unfriended, though, Tori has no shortage of people in her orbit. Her nominal best friend, Becky, is more absorbed in the boy du jour and mostly interested in pushing Tori to be more outgoing. Her old best friend, Lucas, suddenly resurfaces after many years’ absence. Her new potential best friend, Michael Holden, is, like her, somewhat of a social outcast by choice, and their tumultuous interactions form the backbone of Tori’s character development. Meanwhile, an eponymous group keeps playing pranks on the school, and while Tori isn’t keen on investigating, Solitaire seems determined to amp up the pranks until she does.
Let’s start with a few things I liked! Tori’s stream of consciousness narration was jarring at first, but I grew to enjoy it. I can understand why a lot of readers, particularly teens, might enjoy the book for this reason: it is easy to get inside Tori’s head. And while some reviewers have accurately noted how Tori isn’t very likeable, it’s probably important to remember that a lot of readers don’t feel likeable themselves. I don’t really identify with Tori, nor do I think 17-year-old Ben would have identified with Tori, but there’s definitely elements of Tori I could identify with.
I also appreciate how Oseman includes several subplots dealing with things like bullying, eating disorders, etc. This feels very realistic, in that there are definitely people like Tori who don’t directly experience these issues yet are nevertheless involved in some way. While there needs to be more (always more) books that foreground each of these issues, including them in books that don’t focus solely on them is another way to discuss them, and to remind people that these are parts of everyday life, especially for teenagers.
Finally, the disintegration of Tori’s friendship with Becky is compelling in a trainwreck sort of way and feels, unfortunately, all too real. Whether or not we’ve lost friends in exactly this manner, I suspect most of us have felt the sting of a friendship attenuating, disintegrating, or evaporating under the pressures of time or distance or changes in each other’s personalities. Solitaire, for all its flaws, really does tap into real and valid sources of teenage angst. The tough thing about being a teenager is that you’re finally starting to feel adult feelings, yet you’re still treated like a child half the time, and so nothing seems to be accorded the significance it should.
OK. Deep breath.
I liked very little of the actual plot of this book.
I liked very little of Michael Holden.
I found the structure and pacing of this book incredibly off-putting, particularly towards the end, and the tone wildly inconsistent.
The first and third complaints kind of go together: Solitaire just feels messy. The first half of the book or so is about Tori and her friendships and her nascent friendship/not-friendship with Michael. It’s not until much later in the book that Solitaire actually figures heavily in the plot (and it’s kind of obvious who is behind Solitaire). I don’t think this is actually a bad decision on Oseman’s part, but it needs better character development to work more effectively. And that brings me to the problem of Michael….
Is Michael Holden a Manic Pixie Dream Boy? Oseman is certainly aware of the trope, referring to it at least once in the book. There are a few intriguing conversations where Tori and Michael each accuse the other of not being “real”, which I read as a kind of lampshading of the trope. Yet I’m not sure Michael actually qualifies. To Oseman’s credit, she does flesh him out and give him a little bit of depth (though does he have parents? I missed that part). And he makes it clear to Tori when she hurts him by treating their relationship flippantly or insincerely. So, no, I’m not ready to call Michael a MPDB—but he comes close. For one thing, he flounces through the book packed full of enough whimsy you could weaponize it.
Beyond the problem of Michael, many of the other characters undergo dramatic swings of characterization. I want to chalk some of this up to Tori being an unreliable narrator. For example, Becky’s turn towards the end of the book, revealing a side of her character we hadn’t seen up until that point, could be explained by Tori simply underestimating Becky as a consequence of their falling out. I’m willing to give Oseman the benefit of a doubt there. Overall, though, so many of the characters either fall flat for me (like the rambly Mr. Kent) or seem to materialize and dematerialize as needed (like Rita).
I’m just having a hard time pointing to any specific moment, character arc, or indeed plot element about Solitaire that I really liked. I can see aspects to Oseman’s writing that later become so good in Radio Silence. None of it really works for me here. The whole book is just trying so hard, and I have to give it credit for at least going all out in that sense—but it doesn’t work for me. It’s more dull than deep.
I’m seeing some other critical reviews pointing to Oseman’s age at the time of writing—seventeen—as the cause for these problems. Not sure what age has to do with it—seventeen-year-olds can write damn fine books. And a lot of my issues with Solitaire could have been fixed with some more editing. The issue seems more to be inexperience (independent of age) pushing my buttons, as a critically-minded reader, in exactly the right way to make me dislike the book. I really wanted to like Solitaire, and not just because I loved Radio Silence; I loved the premise of this book and love reading about introverts. Alas, it was not to be.