The Art of Kinda Grabbing My Interest // Author: Erin Callahan // Rating: 3/5
Synopsis: Seventeen-year-old Mattie has a hidden obsession: escapology. Emphasis on hidden. If anyone from school finds out, she’ll be abandoned to her haters. Facing a long and lonely summer, Mattie finally seeks out Miyu, the reclusive daughter of a world-renowned escape artist. Following in Houdini’s footsteps, Miyu helps Mattie secretly transform herself into an escapologist and performance artist.
When Will, a popular athlete from school, discovers Mattie’s act at an underground venue, Mattie fears her secret persona will be exposed. Instead of outing her, Will tells Mattie a secret not even his girlfriend knows. Through a blossoming friendship, the two must find a way to express their authentic selves.
Told through the perspectives of the witty main characters, this funny and fresh debut explores the power of stage personas and secret spaces, and speaks to the uncanny ways in which friendships transform us.
I was fortunate enough to receive an eARC from both BookishFirst.com and through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes in this review were taken from an uncorrected proof and may be different in the final publication. Thank you!
Spoilers ahoy, so please jump to my final thoughts to avoid those.
Have you ever read a book where so much of what the narrative wants you to believe about a character is forced on you by declarative statements, but not actually enforced by the text? It’s something called Informed Attribute and it’s just not fun or engaging or great for making your protag likable.
So in The Art of Escaping we have Mattie. She doesn’t like much of anything until she falls hard for escapology and this drives the entire plot of the book. Coolcoolcool. This YA book avoids love triangles or primary romance of any kind and it’s just straight up teens having adventures over the course of a summer and that’s refreshing. But I can not find it in myself to like Mattie in the end. She’s an asshat, and sometimes the narrative addresses that (usually not by having the characters talk to each other), but in other glaring ways, the narrative doesn’t.
Ways Mattie Ross McKenna Is A Mean Bean //
- Her relationship with Will. Somehow this young woman, hip to the ways of history and its huge raking swaths of prejudice and hate, spends most of the book not getting that someone being outed without their consent is a potentially larger, more damaging secret than I’ve chosen to risk drowning and being shot by a bolt because WOO LIFE IS FRAGILE THIS IS MY ART. Eventually she does acknowledge this, internally, “I finally saw the fundamental difference between our secrets – no matter how strange people thought my hobby was, it would never threaten to knock me down the ladder of privilege,” but she doesn’t actually say anything “meaningful” to Will in the moment, because I guess it’s sweeter to just physically actually lean on each other. Kay.
- I also think it’s not?? a fair question? for Mattie to ask Will about his sex life with the girlfriend who has no idea what at all about what’s going on, but that’s just me.
- Her relationship with Miyu, an agoraphobic 30-something still working through the loss of her mother, who was the escapologist Mattie idolizes. Mattie is so f///ing rude to Miyu. Their first interactions, I did genuinely like their banter, because it appeared that Miyu enjoyed it, too. But as the story goes on, and Miyu makes several trips outside her home to assist Mattie, Mattie’s internalized thoughts about Miyu are atrocious.
- “In my head, I laughed at calling Miyu my mentor. The word didn’t really suit her. It made her sound wise and deeply sane instead of crotchety and agoraphobic.”
- “[Miyu] got up and put on her coat, then, as usual, got stuck on the porch. I tried not to crack up as she gingerly dangled her foot over the edge, like her lawn was made of lava.”
- The teens were taking Miyu to her mother’s gravesite by the way, although Miyu wasn’t aware of it at the time. A nice gesture, but HOW BOUT YOU DON’T MOCK THE PERSON WHO GAVE YOU THE MEANS TO HAVE YOUR COMING-OF-AGE STORY MATTIE
- Parts of Mattie’s relationship with Will are good, but again, it feels like the narrative is just telling you, hey, these two became friends, there ya go, they gotta interact now. Huzzah.
- So I liked the following: “People are still real, even when they hide things.” [Mattie to Will sometime after he’s come out to his parents] and this: [Mattie in regards to them hanging out when they’re 30], “I usually don’t let myself think that far ahead. But I hope so.” That’s honestly super sweet and I love that that kind of friendship, one that makes you actually hope and think about the future, was a part of this story.
- But then Mattie pulls this BS at the end, after Will makes a connection with a mutual friend, Austin: “I [Mattie] don’t want to take all the credit for this, but come on. If I hadn’t taken a chance on myself, if I hadn’t shown up on Miyu’s porch that morning and refused to leave, Will and Austin probably never would’ve met.”
- Just, Mattie, no.
This whole thing comes from Will about Mattie:
“But I didn’t have to, because Mattie made it okay. More than okay, because that’s the magic of Mattie. She resides at that strange little way station between stark reality and larger than life fantasy. She wants so much more than just-the-facts-ma’am. She lives for those miraculous moments when you stumble upon something that’s somehow truer than the truth.”
But I didn’t get that from the story itself. Escapology, how it was presented in this book, and excelling in it and finding fulfillment through it, just didn’t equate to this “magic of Mattie” persona for me. It was an unfortunate trap I think, of the informed attributes and the narrative style, that Mattie’s love for escapology pretty much became Mattie the character. That’s all I got from her, other than she was really dishearteningly mean-spirited, intentional or otherwise, to those around her. Maybe I read too much into those statements from Mattie, but they really irked me.
SO. Now that my biggest issue with this book is out of the way, here’s all the stuff (characters) I liked //
- Frankie is amazing, sweet, nerdy, and pretty blunt. He’s just 14, Azorean-American, about to start college and I really liked how he was taken into the group, no problem. (It reminded me of Perks of Being a Wallflower, I appreciate stories where older kids are kind to younger kids, it’s not that hard). He calls Will out on some of his sillier slang as well as utters this line when he first meets Will and Mattie: “[You’re giving me] that look that white people give me when they’re trying to figure out whether I’m white.” Noice. Go, Frankie.
- Stella is amazing. She was such a good friend and deserved to know and take part in Mattie’s adventures far sooner, but I guess the narrative really needed to make sure Mattie and Will became fast friends first. Stella is stellar, if for nothing else, because of this reasoning behind why she broke up with a guy: “Nothing [was wrong with him]! Well, we did actually get into a fight over Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because he refuses to acknowledge its literary significance. But that fight was sort of fun. Most of the time he would just talk and talk and talk and, oh my god, Ginge. I was so bored.”
- You can stay Stella. I like you.
- Will is pretty great and his summer journey is well-done // coming out to his parents, telling Mattie that he will have to come out for the rest of his life, finally getting to be honest with the girl he was dating and then several friends protecting him until he’s ready to be out to more people, all good stuff.
- The conversation between Mattie and Will(em) about the movie origins of their names coincided perfectly, I sh*t you not, with my viewing of this super sweet interview with Willem Dafoe, wherein he talks about how his first name isn’t really Willem, but it is, but you should just watch it, if you like the actor at all. I read the chapter with that convo, took a break, went on a Schitt’s Creek Youtube spiral, saw Willem’s name on the next Stephen Colbert clip, and was like HEYYYYYO coolcoolcool.
- Mattie calling out Mrs. Kane, (again just to herself internally and not realizing maybe she could check herself too once in a while, but anywho), for representing the “worst of the over-privileged and over-educated salon-goers wearing her counter-culture banner like a cleric’s robe.” I work with at least one Mrs. Kane and falsely giving-a-sh*t or giving-a-sh*t for attention is just exhausting. And unhelpful.
- Will and Stella quoting Lewis Carroll at each other = CUTE. Seriously I liked every other teen, maybe because the narrative wasn’t trying so hard to tell you how that teen was hip or nice or cool or magic, instead of just showing you.
- “When something’s so important it becomes a piece of you, sharing it exposes you.” ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤
Final Thoughts //
I liked this story for all the little things it did refreshingly different: the plot focused on friendships, and figuring yourself out through what you love, what inspires you, rather than through a person or relationship. Overall, it was a pretty cool story, but I couldn’t get over how the narrative wanted you to feel one way about Mattie the protag, when her internal thoughts and outward actions were pretty harshly the opposite.
If Leslie Knope had fluttered into the narrative to tell us Mattie was:
I would have believed it. Instead we got the narrative and a less-than-Knope character telling us that Mattie was the bees knees, when really she felt like she was just her escape act and some mean-spirited thoughts towards the woman who gave her everything.
If you liked or loved The Art of Escaping more than me, that’s awesome! These are just my opinions, truly curved by a hard-to-like protagonist. All of the side characters and the tropes that the story sidestepped, kept my rating at a solid three.
So check this book out if you’re looking for a pretty quick, breezy summer read. And, either way, don’t forget to treat yo self to some ice cream or peanut butter cup s’mores or what have you after.
If this book imparted anything on me, it’s that you deserve to be happy and to be able to share your best self with others. So, that’s nice. A nice solid three star thumbs up.
Have you read The Art of Escaping? What did you think? If you could perform anything on stage/for an audience, what would you do? I think I’d love to do a dramatic reading/skit of The Walrus and the Carpenter à la Alice In Wonderland (1999). I definitely wouldn’t be brave enough to attempt an escape act.