And We’re Off
By Dana Schwartz
Razorbill, 253 pp., $17.99
May 2, 2017
Dana Schwartz has built a Twitter following other people only dream about by telling inside jokes that everyone seems to get. The pinned tweet on her parody account @GuyinyourMFA reads, “Capitalism is a disease, and the only cure is a major publishing company giving me a book deal for a hardcover to sell at Urban Outfitters.” Another parody account that targets young adult novels, @DystopianYA, features tweets such as “I just feel like there should be MORE beyond this gated community none of us have ever ventured beyond.” [The Twitter parody account that’s consistently made me laugh harder than any other, though, must be @kristol_history, which makes a mockery of Bill Kristol’s frequent wrong predictions.]
Given Ms. Schwartz’s background, I was somewhat surprised to see a quote from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath introducing the book: “I was supposed to be having the time of my life.” That novel was about the mental illness of its’ protagonist, Esther Greenwood, who gets a prized summer internship in New York only to feel unfulfilled and severely depressed. She tries and fails to kill herself. The book very obviously mirrored Plath’s own feelings about life. Shortly after the publication of The Bell Jar, she killed herself.
“The time of my life” that Nora Holmes is supposed to have in And We’re Off comes courtesy of the Donegal Colony for Young Artists in Ireland, which offers her a summer fellowship. She does not get along smoothly with her mother, who does not seem to understand her artistic talents and tells Nora that she’s going to throw away many of her drawings while she’s in Ireland in order to clean her room. It barely phases Nora, though, who has her medium term life completely planned out: a fantastic summer in Ireland and then a sure acceptance to the Rhode Island School of Design where her romantic life as an artist can take shape. Nora may know exactly where she wants to go, but that doesn’t mean she has no doubts about her ability to get there and she clearly has perfected sarcasm to new heights in an effort to not face the unpleasant details of her life, such as her parents divorce, her mother’s continued sadness, and her father’s marriage to her former math teacher.
On the way to the airport, Nora and her mother argue about her future. Realizing that this may be her last chance to connect with her daughter, Alice Parker (that’s Nora’s mother’s name) impulsively decides to go with her daughter to Europe. ‘Having the time of your life’ suddenly just became ‘Supposed to be having the time of your life.’ Needless to say, Nora does a lot of growing up over the summer, even if it is not the summer that she had planned for herself.
Schwartz demonstrates that she is the Queen of short, pithy phrases and the book is filled with humor that works extremely well. But, she is also able to instill And We’re Off with pathos that consistently works as well. The book is fun, easy to read, and meaningful – an amazing composite that means both old and young readers will find it enjoyable.
There are times when I’ve thought about Sylvia Plath’s last night and what went through her mind. Her only novel and her poetry are haunting and beautiful, but she burned out only as her career was beginning. What might have been. But, among the challenges faced by Plath, one of the most overwhelming was the hard time she had at improvisation. Her life simply did not go according to the plan she had laid out, although her life, like all lives, still contains secrets.
The tone of And We’re Off is nothing like The Bell Jar, but the lesson may be similar: adapting to the unexpected and throwing away our best plans is a critical part of the path towards fulfillment.