I am not sure I am an “objective” critic of Richard Lewis and his writing. I have been a fan since his first book The Flame Tree and enjoyed his subsequent work (see here and here). I have interviewed him via email and over the phone and found him to be an interesting person and a creative writer.
But I think I am honest enough that had his latest book, Monster’s Proof, been a stinker I could admit that it “wasn’t his best work” or something to that effect.
I didn’t find that to be the case and so was struck by the vehemence of one particularly review.
First, here is the publisher’s plot summation:
Livey Ell is the only normal person in a family of geniuses. She’s a cheerleader with an absentminded professor father and a math genius of a little brother, and she’s sure that life couldn’t get any weirder than it already is.
But when her little brother, Darby, brings his childhood imaginary friend Bob to life through a mathematical proof, things start to get really strange. Bob, a creature of pure math, hates chaos and disorder in any form. And as his power grows stronger, he becomes determined to fix our disorderly world in any way possible.
But that’s not the only danger. People know that Bob is in our world — including a top-secret government organization that wants to control him, and a cult of Pythagoreans who worship him.
Now Livey and Darby will need all the help they can get to stop him — before the world as we know it is changed forever.
I found this to be an interesting plot hook. I personally stink at math, and have never progressed beyond balancing the check book let alone abstract math, but the plot struck me as a unique take on young adult action adventure type stories.
But Kirkus obviously felt differently. To see just how much, keep reading.
Here is how Kirkus ends their review:
Despite the unique math angle, the only thing this slow, convoluted thriller consistently proves is its unappealing qualities to teens: stereotyped characters, false voices, failed attempts at humor, Livey’s undeveloped romance with the rebel angel and religious undertones that border on didacticism. Skip to the next problem.
So, you didn’t like it?
I am far from an expert on teens and what they might enjoy reading, but I have read some YA fiction and I was surprised by the vehemence of Kirkus’s dislike.
I am not the most patient of readers but I didn’t find this story particularly slow. It isn’t a non-stop thrill ride either, but no one marketed it as one. It is more along the line of teens face monster without much help – and frequent hindrances – from adults.
Which brings us to stereotyped characters. Are there some? Sure. Most stories have them; stereotypes are in essence shortcuts – familiar character types that play a role. But I can’t think of any particular character that is simply a caricature to the detriment of the larger story. Yes, absentminded professor, geeky high school teacher who turns out to be the accomplice to the bad guy; mysterious loner guy who is more than meets the eye, gifted student who has trouble fitting in, etc. But again, I didn’t find that these rather typical characters detracted from the book. I mean how many YA novels do you know that are completely original and don’t have any common character types or story lines?
I thought Lewis did a good job balancing the perspective of Darby and Livy in such a way that the story wasn’t dominated by either a male or female perspective. And I thought he handled the politics and awkward social interactions between gifted kids in a credible way. And both those who love math, Darby, and those that struggle with it, Livy, have a character they can relate to.
I thought Bob was an interesting character. How many mathematical proofs as villains are out there? Were some of the resulting jokes on the cheesy side? Sure, but he made for an interesting bad guy; wanting to destroy the world in order to make it more elegant.
I also thought the “religious undertones” were well done and included a few surprises. And I have no idea what Kirkus means by the didactism. That good is better than evil? That rebellion often brings unintended consequences? That wrong choices are not irrevocable? How dare Lewis offer such undertones!
I thought the two supernatural characters – outside of Bob – were interesting in the way they interacted with each other and the other characters. There was also a sense of mystery about this aspect of the plot; readers only catch a glimpse of a much more complex story behind the scenes
This is one of those situations where I wonder what the expectations were. I wasn’t looking for deep insight and sophisticated characters in a slick fast-paced thriller. I was expecting an interesting story that used abstract math as a plot hook for a young adult story. Despite the horror story slant, it is mostly a lighthearted adventure with a math twist. The danger reveals the character’s true, well, character.
I will admit my reaction wasn’t: “Wow, what an amazing story! You have got to read this.” But the Kirkus review likewise struck me as over-kill. Booklist sounds more like it:
Lewis’ mix of abstract theory, algebraic cult worship, and divine intervention is nothing short of audacious, but like a telescoping long-division problem, it spills off the page after a point. A finale featuring a VW Beetle piloted by a love-struck angel flying through outer space will be appreciated by fans of the absurd. A true original, to say the least.
If I have a complaint it was that the cover is a little too cheesy horror movie in style; doesn’t match the book in my mind.
Overall, I found Monster’s Proof to be a fun and interesting take on a classic story: Kids inadvertently unleash a monster and must work together to stop it. In this case, it is abstract math that threatens the world and the kids manage to save the world with a little supernatural help. Along the way Lewis both shows his love of math and pokes fun at mathematicians.
I found the mix entertaining. And I think most teens will too.