Author: Penny Tangey
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication Date: 27th June 2011
Length: 253 pages
The FictionFrom UQP: Living in Washington D.C. is meant to be all politics, glamour and great conversations but what do you do when you don’t have the words to join in, or the knowledge to ride the subway, or you’re scared someone will mug you and a million other disasters could be just around the corner?For Clara, joining her mother on a three-month stint in Washington is her end-of-school adventure and a chance to be someone else other than the studious geek she’s always been. Although, starting an adventure is hard to do when you won’t leave the house. But Clara didn’t count on meeting Campbell and his anarchist group and she didn’t count on her new discoveries threatening to unravel all her plans. Will she still be the same after Washington?
So somewhere in the last week of June, between staying in the Macedon Ranges for work and flying to Brisbane, I was able to sneak out to a bookshop on my work break and buy Clara in Washington the day it was published! I was very excited, after having been looking forward to the book for a few months and was keen to read it on my trip (thinking I’d save it to read after work). Instead, the temptation of the book in my hand-luggage proved too much and at the end of my two hour flight, I was ¾ the way through and couldn’t wait to finish. I adore Penny’s writing and am really excited to share a few of my thoughts on this book with you.
Part travelogue, part teen-girl-independence story Clara in Washington is a fantastic, funny young adult novel by an Australian author. Just like with Catherine in Penny’s debut novel, Loving Richard Feynman, I adored Clara and could strongly relate to her. Penny writes this brilliant, not-deliberately funny (but I find it hilarious) chain-of-thought monologues for Clara, which are just spot on. Clara has quite a nervous personality, which at times ranges from cautious to paranoid. Whilst some might find this slightly off-putting, it was something that stood out for me (partly because I have a nervous, slightly-high-strung personality myself) and also because I feel like this personality type hasn’t really featured in other YA novels I’ve read of late. I also think that Clara’s tendency to over-think and her fear in the new environment is something that is actually quite common to Generation Y and the teen reader, and it’s refreshing to have this unease reflected in literature. Like Catherine, Clara also has such a funny, dry sense of humour, which I think balances her cautious personality and helps make it easy to relate to her.
During her time in Washington, Clara connects with a number of people and it’s interesting how these relationships impact upon her character development. A sizeable portion of the story is dedicated to Clara’s relationship with Campbell – a young man working at a local coffee shop and who tries to involve her with his group of Anarchists. Like Clara, I really didn’t know anything about what anarchists did or believed in, and again, I don’t think this is the kind of thing that has been tackled by many other YA novels. Penny explores the idea of anarchy, politics and social justice really well, particularly against the background of the 2008 Presidential election.
Other little things I loved about this book: the references to Melbourne (Clara is a Melbourne girl), that each chapter begins with a quote from a United States president and being able to follow Clara throughout some of DC’s historic landmarks (as well as some lesser-known places, like the Spy Museum). Penny has also liberally used social media throughout the novel in a way which fits with the spirit of the story and themes of the story.
Clara’s journey to a greater sense of self-awareness and her experiences in Washington make for a very enjoyable read. Penny has given Clara a unique and likeable voice, and her story (like good YA should) manages to strike the right balance between these very innocent and unintentionally funny moments, and some more introspective revelations leading to a more-formed, complex identity.
I really loved this book, and if you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments.