June 9, 2010


Penny Tangey
199 pages, University of Queensland Press (UqoP)

Review by SF Winser

What does one call chicklit for teens? Is there a term? Chickadee lit? Chick-let? Egg-lit? Meh.. whatever. It matters not because 'Loving Richerd Feynman' is an odd little entry that doesn't sit nicely on the shelf next to 'Gossip Girls' and Meg Cabot. It's not even close to chick-lit. It's literature, for teen girls.

Catherine is in Year 10 in an Aussie country high-school – 10th grade, for the Americans in the audience. She's a self-aware nerd. She loves science and maths and her parents. She's socially awkward and socially anxious. She sometimes veers into intellectual snobbery.

She is, however, a very honest look at what it's like to grow up an unapologetic, but still human, nerd. She wants social contact and friends. Schoolyard teasing is alien to her - she doesn't get it – but it wounds her deeply. And she manages to hurt others around her by being direct and honest and completely unable to gauge how her actions impact upon others, even if she is partially outcast with only a few friends.

Part of what I loved is that Catherine was pretty much me as a kid, but with different hormones – though with more mathematics talent than I ever had.

The central conceit here is that Catherine is having a tough time fitting in at school. Her beloved dad, a physicist, mentions a Feynman quote about being yourself which Catherine loves. Her dad, always encouraging of her geekier pursuits, gives her a poster of Richard Feynman. (For those outside the history of science – he won the Nobel Prize for helping explain one of the aspects of quantum physics, worked in building the atomic bomb and is considered one of the greatest science communicators, ever. He gave lectures that were fun and accessible and wrote books that were equally so. Penguin released his 'Five Easy Pieces' as a Penguin Classic recently – science book as literary classic. He was also a looker and had a decent sense of humour). Catherine, rather than write a diary, decides to write letters to the Feynman poster about her troubles.

It starts very slight. Like a less funny Adrian Mole book (there is a lot of humour here, but it's not a humour-driven novel, which is weird because Penny Tangey made her name as a comedian. This shows unbelievable constraint on her part). If it weren't for the novelty of the conceit, I think I would have put the book down and moved to another of my massive pile of new YA before long.

But then things start happening – lives fall apart. Challenges appear in the form of rivals, loves and even new friends. It becomes clear that Catherine's lack of knowledge about Feynman himself (He led an … interesting … life, full of sadness and yet, was also a total 'pants-man') is going to impact her relationships with others as she discovers more about her new hero which isn't always flattering. Especially when the new boy Felix turns up a school - a very bright, likable, Feynmanesque boy. Or when her parents hit a rough patch in their marriage. Or when the people around her start growing up and she has to force herself to start seeing them as fellow human beings after years of being emotionally and intellectually superior to almost all her peers. She's not completely up to the task of meeting people as equals.

There's a nice bit of seer-seeing when Catherine visits her college-aged cousin and her room-mate and is surprised to find that they love her for who she is – even when she is obviously more science-driven than either of them. Being loved for being a nerd is new to her. The reader is aware that this is not unusual in uni. Catherine just has to last two more years, and all the joys and intellectual freedoms of university will be there waiting for her. College is a place where nerds can find other nerds who will love and accept them. It's a nice bit of foreshadowed joy for the reader, even if it's just a fleeting bit of acceptance for Catherine.

In the end, this is a lovely piece all about that theme of acceptance. Acceptance of yourself, acceptance of others. The idea that everyone has faults – our heroes, our friends, our rivals, our parents and ourselves. And we need to find ways to get past these, if we can. Even if Richard Feynman was a jerk to women and a bit too ready to blame others for the impact of nuclear weapons – it's still possible to love Richard Feynman. And the same can go for the other, flawed people in our lives.

The theme doesn't always hold together – sometimes it gets lost when the book starts slower than it should, or because a lot of the events are a little juvenile or been done before.(But, again, for a young audience these aren't irredeemable faults. Juvenile means 'teenaged'. And teens simply can't be as cynical and narratively exposed as world-weary, well-read adults.) Though I must admit, while divorce is an old YA theme, this is the first book I've read where divorce is seen as somewhat expected – Catherine's pain can't be explained to her few friends because she expects them to go: 'So what?'. Making her feel even more alone.

I also liked the way that Catherine was aware of the way her parents were trying to deal with their break-up as adults looking out for a child meant that she often had to suffer indignities and emotional repression that they, as the so-called 'injured parties' were able to legitimately ignore or express. She, however, has to see people she's angry at before she's ready, and can't sulk or cry without the potential of being sent to a psychologist. Everyone is busy 'protecting' her even though she's bright enough to know exactly what's going on, that she can't even talk to the rest of her family.

This is a lovely book, nicely written to the younger YA market. The science and maths that creep in are well-explained, the characters are real and sympathetic. We often like them even when Catherine doesn't: a feat of writing by someone who clearly knows what they're doing with this whole 'putting words into interesting orders' stuff. A 30ish guy managed to be kept up reading into the wee hours by a book written for teenaged girls. That's just awesome.

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