Read How the Light Gets In by M. J. Hyland for the next book off of the Rory Gilmore Reading List and made a papercut book cover for it.
About the Book:As I finished up the long, fairly dull four-volume set of Richard Gilmore’s prized "Complete History of the Peloponnesian War" by Donald Kagan, I needed something to read next that was light, easy, and fun for the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge. Since I had been spending so much time in the past, I thought I’d take a stab at the other end of the spectrum and read something modern. Written in 2003, I thought "How the Light Gets In" by M. J. Hyland sounded good. And good it was, but not exactly "light," "easy," or "fun." The main character Louise O’Conner is a hyper-intelligent but self-absorbed teenager looking to escape her crass, poor, deadbeat Australian family through an exchange student program in the United States. She gets placed with the Hardings, her middle-class host-family living in the Chicago suburbs. Louise fantasizes about them adopting her and loving her in a way her own family doesn’t, but she quickly learns that the Hardings don’t live up to her expectations. Likewise, Louise doesn’t live up to their expectations of her, or her own expectations of herself. Deeply insecure and anxious, in a desperate attempt to change herself, Lou quickly turns to drugs and alcohol to help her cope. Unfortunately, getting caught with said drugs and alcohol gets her kicked out of the Hardings household and placed in a home for wayward exchange students. (Yes, really.) The plot is simple, but written in Lou’s voice, the story is thought-provoking and compelling. Lou is likened to Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, and it’s easy to see why. Both are teens with a self-destructive and reckless attitude, trying to figure out life in self-absolved yet detached way that only teenagers can be. There’s a sadness and an underlying fury to Lou that is both captivating and repulsive. I did like her character better than I ever liked Holden Caulfield, but still found myself frustrated by her self-centeredness and idea that people should just "know" her without her having to tell them how she feels. Maybe this is a teenage thing that I don’t remember, but I felt like yelling at Lou, "People can’t read your mind! Just tell them how you feel!" Of course you will feel misunderstood if you don’t try to communicate anything at all. I was rooting for Lou in the beginning of the novel, but got fed up with her by the end. She wanted to change, but her selfishness and poor choices made it more and more difficult for her to make the changes she was seeking. Perhaps it’s because people can’t really change, a question Lou ponders in this story. Perhaps it’s because people are so influenced by the circumstances of their childhood. Lou desperately wanted to leave behind her family but in the end, she solved her problems in the same way her family did- booze and drugs.
I couldn’t put this book down, but was disappointed in the ending, mainly because it just ends. There’s the strong implication that Lou is sent home, but it doesn’t actually happen yet in the story. So there’s no real resolution by the end of the story. You are also left with a cliff-hanger—does Lou learn anything or not? At the very end of the story, she is waiting to see if Gertie, the housekeeper for the house for wayward exchange students will come into her room. If she does, Lou decides she will tell her everything. If she doesn’t, Lou will just sit and stare out the window and fantasize about following the people she sees home. So far, Lou hasn’t seemed to learn anything. She has only changed her behaviors so far as they help her accomplish her goal of staying in the U.S., but otherwise doesn’t see anything wrong with how she has lied, betrayed people’s trust, or numbed her pain with alcohol and drugs. She ultimately hasn’t faced her underlying insecurity and anxiety, and this lack of self-awareness is tragic. It finally seems like maybe she is ready to open up to Gertie, that maybe she will be honest for once and forthright in communicating how she really feels, but only if Gertie decides to check in on her. And the book ends before we know if Gertie comes in or not. So we don’t know if she tells Gertie all, or remains staring out the window until she is sent home. We don’t know if she learns anything by her stay in the U.S. or not. And while I suppose this type of ending is more dramatic, and literary, it still drive me nuts.
About the Papercut: The original book cover design features a grungy close-up of a girl says mouth and chin with bright red lipstick and a cigarette hanging out of mouth. I think it’s brilliant, so it was a challenge to think of something completely different for my own interpretation of a book cover for this story. Another design I found features retro-looking font in a cloud of smoke from the small silhouette of a girl and a suitcase against a flat illustration of houses, indicating the almighty "suburbia." I love this design as well. I knew I also want to include a cigarette in my design because in the story, Lou’s smoking is the seen as the first sign of Lou’s rebellion by the Harding family, but mostly it seems to fit Lou’s character. At the beginning of the book, there’s a scene with Lou and Mr. Harding looking out the window. It’s a rare moment where Lou actually seems at peace with herself. And, as mentioned above, the book also ends with Lou looking out a window. However, this time, she is alone, regretful, and sad. And yet, since the story is left unresolved, it leaves room for a small glimmer of hope. Although I mostly disliked the ending of the story, I did enjoy this motif of the window. Lou is trying to figure out her life, how to navigate relationships, her emotions, and she is a deep thinker. Something about staring out windows evokes a sense of wonder, a sense of pontification, if you will. This was the perfect image to capture the essence of Louise O’Conner— a girl, smoking and looking out a window. And just because she struck me as the kind of girl to wear a beanie, I added a beanie hat on her head. My design was on the simpler side of what I usually do. If you seen some of my other work, (not book covers) you’ll see that I tend towards highly detailed and intricate designs. I can’t help it. It’s my personality but also I like the lace-like effect that complex patterns give when cut in paper, and it’s more of a fun challenge to cut a complicated design. However, for book covers this level of intricacy simply doesn’t always work. I’m learning that some ideas necessitate a more minimalistic design. Sometimes, less is more. I’m learning to determine when that applies and when I can go to a crazy level of detail on a design. This design at first felt too simple, but then I remembered that simple isn’t bad. The design is simple but that’s ok, I think it works. And sometimes, the less lines to cut actually makes cutting it out more challenging. That was the case here. When lines have less connected points, you have to be very careful not to let the paper pull or tear as you cut. When there are smaller cuts but lots of connection points, you don’t have to worry about the paper pulling as much. The challenge in that case is more in the time required to make all the small cuts, and being careful not to cut through a small connection line. Overall, I am very pleased with how my papercut turned out. I think it’s a worthy design for the book cover of this interesting yet raw story from M. J. Hyland.