Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release: June 14, 2011
Sixteen-year-old Alex has just begun his junior year at a boys' boarding school when he fails to save a friend from drowning in a river on campus. Fearing the consequences if they reveal the whole truth about what happened, Alex and his friend Glenn, who also witnessed the accident, decide to lie. Plagued by guilt, Alex takes refuge in the library, telling his tale in a journal he hides behind a copy of Moby Dick.Paper Covers Rock is a true work of art.
But the boys were not the only ones by the river that day. In the midst of their panic, Miss Dovecott, a young English teacher fresh out of Princeton, happened to arrive.
Over the next few weeks, Miss Dovecott begins to recognize poetic talent in Alex; she helps him find his voice, and he is thrilled by his teacher's special attention. But when it becomes obvious that Miss Dovecott has noticed glimmers of guilt in Alex's writing, Glenn is convinced she is out to get them. Now Alex must choose between his friend and his mentor. But every decision has its consequences.
Of course, I could say the same about countless other books, but Jenny Hubbard's debut stands out. Its artistry is not the conventional sort—gorgeous writing or a brilliantly planned plot, the kind that everyone appreciates, the kind that everyone seems to have agreed to appreciate. Instead, Paper Covers Rock is a quietly beautiful novel, for readers of a certain taste. I understand why a reader would dislike it—the story is very, very literary and languid and a bit stream-of-conscious—but if you enjoy that kind of story, like I do, Paper Covers Rock will make you fall in love without ever fully being able to capture why. But, because I want other readers to have the same experience as I did with this book, I am going to try.
Hubbard chose to write Paper Covers Rock in journal format, but not a conventional one. Alex is a poet, a fact that his entries exemplify. His storytelling is choppy, as he tells readers about whatever strikes his mood, whether that be the happenings of his current life or the events leading up to his friend Thomas's death. He also does not always write in the first person; he sometimes calls himself Is Male, a nod to Ishmael from Moby Dick. This style may sound strange, but Hubbard brilliantly weaves Alex's offbeat voice into a cohesive story. Each chapter is divided into sub-sections that separate present from past, first person from third person, so the plot's jumps never seem confusing. Without these sub-headings, the story could have seemed messy, but with them, the storyline becomes a puzzle that readers can try to put together, complete with an enigmatic twist at the end. And the third-person sections do not sound stilted; instead, they give Alex a chance to get out of his own head and look at himself from the outside in. When Alex writes about Is Male, his voice seems removed and observational, which creates a refreshing contrast to his usual emotionally-charged voice.
Paper Covers Rock also brims with references to classic books and poems—some of which I have read and some of which I have not. While part of me wishes I had read Moby Dick before picking up this novel, an expansive literary background is not a prerequisite for enjoying the story. As she weaves in other works of fiction, Hubbard provides enough explanation of their significance that less-experienced readers will understand her allusions. However, this background information is subtle enough that even literary scholars will not feel as if the book is talking down to them. All in all, reading Paper Covers Rock feels like a light and pleasant version of English class, an experience that I have never found in any other book and that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Through its masterful storytelling, Paper Covers Rock encapsulates a tangle of emotions that Hubbard portrays with intensity and empathy. Most importantly, Alex's guilt about Thomas's death drives the plot, adding a corrosive remorse to his every journal entry. But the author does not stop there; she also gives Alex a growing crush on his young, bright English teacher. Normally, I cannot stand reading about teacher-student romantic relationships—they seem so icky, for lack of a more professional word, and they are the one tough subject I avoid rather than seek out—and I cannot say that this aspect of the plot never made me uncomfortable. But somehow Hubbard makes readers begin to understand Alex's feelings, an impressive feat that led me to push through despite my dislike of the trope. And on top of all of this, Alex has to deal with the normal emotions of being a teenager, something few YA novels can live without.
Having recently read Hubbard's second novel, And We Stay, I suppose I should have expected such brilliance from Paper Covers Rock. The two novels share many characteristics: both narrators are poets, both plots center around traumatic events, both stories are set in boarding schools in the late 1900s, and all of these elements combine to form two stories that I described as quietly beautiful. But somehow, Hubbard's debut still took me by surprise. It is not the Mona Lisa of YA, but it is the small, abstract-but-fascinating painting in the corner, surrounded not by a crowd but by a few dedicated viewers scribbling notes into the margins of jam-packed notebooks. It gives readers an experience I have not even come close to describing in the few paragraphs of my review, so if you are a reader who is drawn to slow, literary plots and emotional writing, I highly, highly recommend reading Hubbard's work. You will not be disappointed.