Vacuous Phoebe

{Book #2: What She Saw… by Lucinda Rosenfeld}
{Reading Status: three-quarters of the way through the novel}

Tim: Wow, is this character worthless. No sugar coating it, you now know where I stand. Phoebe is so lacking in personality, in characterization, I can barely stand it. I have no idea why she does what she does, why she feels what she feels, what she’s willing to fight for, or barring that, why she doesn’t fight. It gets a little better about halfway through, beginning with Bruce Bledstone, but all we get are the merest traces of characterization and variations on the theme of wanting to be dominated, without any indication of where or when that thought (which she’s very aware of) began. This is a book about what she saw in all these men, but never mind for a second the very flat way they’re portrayed (at least they have a caricature), if that’s going to be important we have to have some sense of who Phoebe is!

Debby: Okay, I totally disagree with you. Tim- we went to COLLEGE with people just like Phoebe!! All those “Conservatory kids” running around, playing instruments on the front lawn of campus, always trying to live up to that unreachable achievement bar their parents set for them (of course, Phoebe was past her violin stage by the time she entered college, but, you know). When Phoebe received that first love note, Stinky’s “YOU LOOK FINE!” epistle, I felt myself cringe at my own memories of middle school. I still remember sixth grade: walking into the classroom on Valentine’s Day to find a vase filled with gorgeous flowers and a tin box of chocolates on my desk. Convinced that in my bespeckled/braces state a boy would never pay me such high regard, I loudly announced to my friends, “Oh, it must be from my dad.” It turned out they were from Johnny, the gawky boy with a brain the size of Texas. I had a massive crush on him. But I still couldn’t believe that he liked me. My friends, glamorous little tweens, couldn’t believe it either. “Oh Debby, you guys would be such a perfect nerd couple!” was all I heard for weeks. It was years before Johnny and I talked again.

I tell this story only to truly convince you that I feel Phoebe’s pain!! She wants so desperately to be cool, to be liked by anyone (she clearly doesn’t know how to hold a long-term friendship with a girl, either). How can you say that Phoebe is worthless as a character??

Tim: Because she exists way – WAY – too much as someone whose main goal in life is to be liked (I know we’ve said/are saying sex is a major goal for her, too, but let’s not pretend being liked isn’t the biggest one). She has no identity outside of that. And you’re going to say that’s the point, and maybe it is, but it makes for a lousy character. Even if your little sixth grade self was pretty obsessed with wanting people to like her, you had other interests. You still had things you went and did and enjoyed and lived for. Everything that might be like that for Phoebe is firmly on the periphery. She never takes action in any meaningful way. Things just happen to her. She may needle them slightly in one way or the other, but she’s a blank slate, and that’s not interesting in a main character.

Debby: Awww… Thanks for seeing the “real me”, Tim. I wonder if we would have been friends in sixth grade. But back to Phoebe. I am not denying that she’s a rather flat character. I’m just trying to point to aspects that are believable. I think some of her actions/reactions give her a plausibility and depth. I just think she’s incredibly self-centered. She doesn’t really give a crap about any of these boys (what their dreams are, what they struggle with), she just cares about how they make her feel. When you live that selfishlessly, and on top of that don’t like yourself, it can feel pretty empty.

Tim: Oh I definitely think there are believable and realistic qualities to Phoebe’s character. I just don’t think they’re put together well. We have to have some frame of reference by which to interpret what Phoebe sees in these men, and we don’t really. The men are well drawn enough to each spend a chapter narrating about Phoebe (and probably not much longer). Then maybe we’d see a full picture of her. I think that might be an interesting book. And I think maybe that’s where Phoebe’s characterless-ness gets to me the most. She’s flat, so we have no way to see anyone else as anything but flat because there’s no frame of reference for them to be anything else. Phoebe’s struggles just don’t feel very lifelike to me even when there’s nuggets of reality in there because there’s no complexity to it. She doesn’t ever feel held in tension by anything, just pulled along by a single rope at a time.

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