Quiet Suspense: The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban the tragedy paper

Published: January 8th 2013 by Knopf Books for Young Readers/Random House

Source: local library

Synopsis: Tim Macbeth, a seventeen-year-old albino and a recent transfer to the prestigious Irving School, where the motto is “Enter here to be and find a friend.” A friend is the last thing Tim expects or wants—he just hopes to get through his senior year unnoticed. Yet, despite his efforts to blend into the background, he finds himself falling for the quintessential “It” girl, Vanessa Sheller, girlfriend of Irving’s most popular boy. To Tim’s surprise, Vanessa is into him, too, but she can kiss her social status goodbye if anyone ever finds out. Tim and Vanessa begin a clandestine romance, but looming over them is the Tragedy Paper, Irving’s version of a senior year thesis, assigned by the school’s least forgiving teacher.

Jumping between viewpoints of the love-struck Tim and Duncan, a current senior about to uncover the truth of Tim and Vanessa, The Tragedy Paper is a compelling tale of forbidden love and the lengths people will go to keep their love.

My thoughts: An outsider going to boarding school and falling in love with the beautiful girl with the jerk boyfriend is a fairly standard set up for a young adult novel, but Elizabeth Laban’s quiet, understated prose and story within a story framework with a  suspenseful plot ensure The Tragedy Paper is memorable.

Tim is a character that immediately grabbed my interest. He’s very self-conscious and a keen observer of his surroundings so his narration is interesting. Since his story has been recorded after the fact, he’s had time to reflect on the events and is also giving us his commentary. While Tim is a sad character, he doesn’t elicit pity, which is a balance to strike in someone with his affliction.

Duncan was more difficult to get a grasp on, but I was invested in his story and curious about his role in Tim’s tragedy. I never really figured out Vanessa and I kind of liked that ambiguity. Was she just messing with Tim? Was she genuine in her affection? Why wasn’t she more direct? Reader’s are left to guess.

Though Tim’s crush on Vanessa and Duncan’s relationship with Daisy are important to the plot, there’s really not a lot of development of the reasons behind this attraction and I think the synopsis overstates the depth of this passion. This isn’t a sappy love story.

The back and forth between Tim’s story as listened to by Duncan with Duncan’s life was very effective. The structure of the story had me on edge, wanting to know more. The use of the assignment of the tragedy paper was a fantastic device that added layers of meaning to the events without being overly obvious about them. It’s a very good example of a coming-of-age even if it reflects a very specific perspective and often explored experience.

The Tragedy Paper is a quality example of young adult fiction and would be ideal for classroom use alongside other traditional high school stories, though I would hope a more diverse story might be also introduced as a counterpoint or alternative to this very white, upper middle class story.

Recommended for fans of:

  • boarding school novels, such as Paper Covers Rock by Jenny Hubbard, Looking for Alaska by John Green, A Separate Peace by John Knowles, etc.
  • 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher for similiar narrative structure and recorded narration

Second opinions:

Katy Upperman: “I think The Tragedy Paper’s greatest strength lies in its earnestness. It’s a quiet sort of book and the characters who populate its pages are wholesome kids mostly trying to do the right thing. But, they have weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and those weaknesses and vulnerabilities are what kept me turning pages.”

Christina at Reader of Fictions: “LaBan’s The Tragedy Paper is contemplative and academic, sure to appeal to readers looking for a meatier, slower-paced read.”

Guy’s Lit Wire: “In Elizabeth Laban’s The Tragedy Paper, readers will discover a coming-of-age story set in a traditional location (boarding school) with a familiar setup (love triangle) that turns everything you think you know about this sort of book on its ear. Laban might be giving readers a familiar setting and situations but her characters are so thoughtful and the plot just twisty enough that she manages a page-turner out of the quietest of stories.”


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