So Shelly by Ty Roth (2011)

“We’ve reduced the experience of ‘being in love’ to that which can be summarized in a pop song or portrayed in a chick flick.  The we’re angry and disillusioned with love disappoints.  Here’s a little secret:  love always disappoints.  It’s the conscious choice to love someone or not to love someone, despite the disappointment , that makes it beautiful.

And it is beautiful.  I know that now.” (p. 2)

So Shelly explores the lives of the famous Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John Keats as if they were teenagers living today.  Roth uses the sordid details from their lives to create the narrative for his debut novel.  John Keats, the kid preoccupied with death after losing both of his parents in quick succession and who is now watching his brother die of TB, is our narrator, but don’t be fooled. This story is about Shelley and Gordon; their oddly inter-dependent relationship with one another, their dysfunctional relationships with their families, and the way their blatant self-absorption leads ultimately to their downfalls.

Love and lust, faithfulness and betrayal, and life and death all play key roles in Roth’s story.  Shelley and Gordon are larger-than-life and rather unsympathetic.  It’s difficult to really feel for them; Shelley, because of her pathetic infatuation with Gordon and Gordon for, well, just about everything he does.  Despite this disconnect, the plot moves quickly enough that you want to keep reading (except for Gordon’s time in Greece-that part seemed out of place and I don’t think it necessarily contributed to the integrity of the plot).  I also felt Keats’ role in the novel was superfluous.  It wasn’t entirely believable that Shelley would divulge the type of secrets she did to him and the fact that he was so removed from the action added to the disconnect between reader and characters (Roth explains his choice of using Keats as the narrator in the Afterward-after reading that, it made a bit more sense to me).  Having said that, I do think teens who are drawn to dark, Gothic tales will enjoy this book.

I enjoyed reading the Afterward as much as the novel itself.  There, Roth gives us some brief biographical information about the real Shelly, Byron and Keats.  While some of the events in the novel seem outrageous, we learn in the Afterward that these things really happened.  On his blog, Roth expresses concern that he may face criticism about So Shelly‘s “brutal honesty regarding sexuality”.  I think the historical base for his novel would provide some justification for inclusion of said details, although some of the action may have been more palatable had the characters been a little older.  It is interesting to think, though, that if we perceive such choices as scandalous today, how much more so they must have been in the poets’ own time.

This is an ARC slated for release in February 2011.

Link to Ty Roth’s blog.

See Tattooed Books review.

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