We all know I adore a good verse novel, yes? AND that I love a well-written memoir? So here’s my question–why haven’t I loved and adored the last two verse memoirs I’ve read? Anyone?
Okay, now that I’ve dated myself there, I’m serious about verse memoirs. I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming when it became a Newbery Honor book, and I enjoyed it, but I remember wondering how it would fare with its intended audience. Memoirs usually don’t have story arcs in quite the same way novels do, and I found myself thinking that I might have enjoyed Woodson’s experiences more in a traditional format.
Flash forward to Margarita Engle’s Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A Memoir, which I finished the other day, and I found myself thinking the same thing. (By the way, in case you’re wondering, there really are two colons in that title. I checked.) While shorter and held more successfully together by its theme, Enchanted Air still lacked–for me–the impact of a verse novel. I enjoyed it, you understand–at least as much as Brown Girl Dreaming–but I wanted to love it more than I did. After all, Engle was half Cuban and just old enough to remember the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis rather vividly; I should have been spellbound by this book. And I did totally enjoy it, remember. But.
Here’s my theory. A good verse novel is a story stripped down to its essence; every word, every punctuation mark, and every phrase plays a deliberate part in telling that story. Think of an arrow leading to the conclusion–a streamlined, tidy-looking arrow. Every bit of a verse novel contributes to the plot, and the plot is central to the verse novel. Memoirs, on the other hand, can be messy. Memoirs wander. Plot tends not to be central to memoirs, at least certainly not in the same kind of way. Memoirs aren’t meant to be streamlined arrows, and that’s okay, because that’s not what we look for when we read them. Ultimately, in my opinion, memoirs want words–more words than verse novels have to offer.
To sum up, as Inigo Montoya would say, I enjoyed Enchanted Air–quite a bit; I just don’t see myself reading a lot of verse memoirs. What do YOU think about the genre?