Students at the Irving School, past and present, are all about tradition. In terms of academics, the Tragedy Paper—a huge English assignment that serves as the senior thesis—easily carries the most weight for the senior class. In terms of social traditions, there are two: first, there are the 'treasures', gifts left for the incoming seniors by the former dorm room inhabitants; and second, there's the senior Game, an all-day (or night) activity secretly planned by a group that then taps ten members of the junior class to carry the torch the next year.
When incoming senior Duncan Meade is assigned the smallest dorm room on the hall, he almost feels that it was fate—not because of the size of the room, but because of the identity of the previous inhabitant. Although Duncan never really even spoke with Tim Macbeth, he's still grappling with unresolved feelings about him, and about the tragedy that Tim unwittingly drew him into last semester.
At first, in comparison to some of the creative and generous gifts left for Duncan's hallmates, Tim's 'treasure'—a stack of CDs—seems uninspired at best... until he reads the note left with them. And he realizes that Tim has left him a gift both personal and necessary, a gift that he both craves and dreads—he's left him the entire story:
But let me say one important thing I would bet money you didn’t expect and then I will leave you to your senior year: what you are about to hear— the words, the music, my downfall, as well as your perceived or actual role in it— will serve you better than you ever could have imagined. Basically, I am giving you the best gift, the best treasure, you could ask for. I am giving you the meat of your Tragedy Paper.
Although the majority of the book belongs to Tim and his story, The Tragedy Paper alternates between his first-person recordings and the third-person narrator that follows Duncan. While it's told mostly in words of less-than three syllables, each one of those words feels carefully, deliberately chosen—and impressively, it doesn't come off as at all stiff, but as distinct. It also has what I've dubbed The MFA Feel: it feels like a story that was crafted, rather than grown. If that makes sense.
As you'd expect in a book that features characters not only studying, but living and breathing tragedy, a lot of famous works—mostly Shakespeare, but others, too—are name-dropped*, there are loads of literary terms listed and considered and discussed, and the secondary characters and relationships actually take a backseat to all of that. So, in that way—and despite how it held me utterly enthralled from start to finish—the book feels more like a literary exercise than a story unto itself. But, considering the framing, that feel may well have been just as carefully deliberate as the word choice.
Although it makes sense in terms of personality and context, some readers will likely be frustrated by Tim's—who, due to his albinism, has built up a lot of emotional walls to avoid being hurt—inertia and lack of initiative. His narration isn't all doom and gloom, though: despite the knowledge that his narrative is inexorably nearing a Bad End, he's clearly bright, and exhibits more of a sense of humor than I'd have had in his position. As for Duncan, just as I was starting to worry that he'd follow in Tim's passive footsteps, he apparently read my mind and made a concerted effort NOT to do so.
There's a great slow build to the actual tragedy—it never feels that Tim (or LaBan) is being coy or too slow, and the pacing is spun out just right. It's not a book that'll be for everyone, but I enjoyed it hugely, and I'd imagine that high school English teachers will make great use of it.
*SPOILERISH: I was a little surprised that Ethan Frome (AKA THE MOST DEPRESSING BOOK EVER) didn't come up, given the parallels, but maybe that would have been too obvious?
Book source: Review copy via Netgalley. Any quotations subject to change in the finished copy.