Life By Committee
By Corey Ann Haydu
Published May 2014
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
Tabitha might be the only girl in the history of the world who actually gets less popular when she gets hot. But her so-called friends say she’s changed, and they’ve dropped her flat.
Now Tab has no one to tell about the best and worst thing that has ever happened to her: Joe, who spills his most intimate secrets to her in their nightly online chats. Joe, whose touch is so electric, it makes Tab wonder if she could survive an actual kiss. Joe, who has Tabitha brimming with the restless energy of falling in love. Joe, who is someone else’s boyfriend.
Just when Tab is afraid she’ll burst from keeping the secret of Joe inside, she finds Life by Committee. The rules of LBC are simple: tell a secret, receive an assignment. Complete the assignment to keep your secret safe.
Tab likes it that the assignments push her to her limits, empowering her to live boldly and go further than she’d ever go on her own.
But in the name of truth and bravery, how far is too far to go?
Things this book seems to be about:
- Stigmatizing anxiety disorders and other mental health problems
- Demonizing marijuana use
- Slut shaming and unacknowledged internalized sexism
- Token Non-Judgemental Queer Sidekicks
- Jocks are dicks.
After reading Corey Ann Haydu's OCD Love Story, I was under the impression that this was an author who could balance creating a safe space with telling a realistic story. This book threw that straight out the window. So, let's talk about Life by Committee. I have a lot of feelings about this book and none of them are good. Most of them amount to that kind of weird bile-mucus taste you get in your mouth when you're the worst kind of sick and no matter how many times you brush your teeth it just doesn't go away so you're just stuck feeling gross until the medicine kicks in and maybe does something. I'm going to be making a lot of mouth references here, and you're just gonna have to bear with me.
Life by Committee is problematic. Those of you who know me in the world outside this book blog know how much I hate the word 'problematic' for various reasons that I won't get into right now since it'll be another mouth metaphor and I'm saving that for later. Regardless, you're just going to have to trust that I don't use the word lightly or often.
So here we have yet another portrayal of a bunch of white folks with a lot of privilege and issues living in Vermont which the internet has told me is a land of syrup, petty he said/she said arguments, and (surprise, surprise) privilege. In this installment of Y'all Got Issues, the MC, Tabitha, is the teenage daughter of a couple who got teen pregnant and managed to not only stay together and have a relationship, but started their own business and are generally a big hippie success story. Good for you, parents. Well done. She's upset because over the summer she got boobs and a butt and apparently that was all it took for her bffs to be all 'later' and dump her for no reason. Here's the thing, Tabitha. Do you mind if I call you Tabitha? You're fictional. I really don't care. I'm calling you Tabitha. Now, Tabitha, nobody ditches their friends for no reason. I mean I went through that part of high school where suddenly my friend group changed completely, and I can promise you that like a lot of people that happens to there was some mutual screwed upness happening there. Tabitha's bffs didn't just ditch her because she "got hot." But for the whole of the book, Tabitha refuses to accept that she might've had something to do with her own sudden lack of friends. But hey, that's cool. She has Token Queer Character now. A character who she's consistently awful to and makes pretty clear that having one friend who will call you on your crap but still be friends with you isn't good enough. Gee, I wonder why everyone hates Tabitha?
Frankly, it can't be because she's "dressing slutty" since there's another girl in school who's being all free and open with her sexuality, who accepts herself and Tabitha spends way too much time fixating on and hating this chick based on what she sees as a double standard. Cue more boo-hoo everyone hates me. But, because this is a YA novel and it wouldn't be a YA novel without some serious Bad Decisions, because everything is didactic: Tabitha makes some bad decisions. Halfway through this series of Bad Decisions, I began to realize that this book is basically just another version of OCD Love Story except this time there's a bonus Queer. At it's root, Corey Ann Haydu has written the exact same book. I'm not saying this is a bad thing. It's not entirely. Authors write variations on the Exact Same Book all the time. Stephen King has basically made a career out of it. And hey, that seems to work for him and it could also work for Corey Ann Haydu. But when your books are Stigmatized Problem Stays Stigmatized > Obsessive Love Interest > Outside Force Controls Character's Life > Obsessive Love Interest Implodes > Actual Love Interest > Tidy Resolution then maybe you should take a step back for a second and evaluate things. People with mental health concerns see themselves stigmatized constantly. They don't need to have it happen in their fiction as well. That's their reality. They live with it every single moment of every single day. So here's my challenge to you, Ms. Haydu: Make this thing that is a constant part of their lives normal. Don't demonize it. OCD Love Story's MC was brought to an absolutely tragic point and yes, yes that was an important, painful book that I'm glad got written if only because the OCD community didn't need another representation of their lives as "lol, I like to keep things tidy. I'm so OCD."
Life by Committee isn't OCD Love Story, of course since the characters themselves have changed and the plot device is different, but here's the thing: Tabitha's internal and external treatment of Sasha Cotton (who suffers from panic attacks, severe depression, and at least one experience of suicidal ideation,) isn't acceptable and it's especially not acceptable from an author who clearly knows better and understands at least intellectually how damaging that kind of depiction can be. Yes, you can write absolutely horrible characters. That's cool. I mean look at Tumblr. There is clearly an audience for morally ambiguous MC love. Heck, I am definitely part of that audience. But YA books are intended for a certain audience, and I know that the books I read when I was in that demographic shaped me tremendously into the person I am today. I'm sure the author of this book is a wonderful human being. I'm sure she's kind and empathetic and cares about the kind of impact she's making on people. It's with that in mind that I'd like for her to take the base of Sasha Cotton, take this depressed girl who makes really, really bad decisions because she just wants people to like her, and use that flawed character for a book, and do that without trying to teach something. Maybe she'll get help and get on whatever the right medication for her is. Maybe she won't. Because, for me, this book was like dental work: profoundly uncomfortable, going on too long, and so nice and tidy at the end that I'd nearly forgotten what a chore it was in the first place.
All that said, my main beef with OCD Love Story was that the cover completely didn't work with the story. Life by Committee doesn't have that problem, and for all that it seems like I'm implying that it was the most awful thing I've ever read, it wasn't. Far from it. Corey Ann Haydu has the skill to tell a really good story. I want to see her push herself. When her next work comes out in May, I will absolutely be buying and reading that too. If I weren't invested in this author's success, I wouldn't waste my time on their books. There are way too many other things I could be doing with my life.