Lauren Oliver

Vanishing Girls and the Trouble With Waiting Around

I picked up Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver for two reasons.  First, the title.  Second, the cover, which is, I think, gorgeous and evocative, and marries with the title in that perfect book cover alchemy that means even without any other information about the book or its contents, I'm already on board.

There are a lot of good things in this book - interesting relationships, moments of lightness to balance more weighty scenes, and the idea that most loss happens not all at once but a little at a time.  It's a story that asks questions about what it means to be a girl in the world and the ways that we try to hold on to ourselves and each other as tightly as possible to stay visible and real and true. 

Here's where it went wrong for me though:  Vanishing Girls, like many books, is structured around a critical twist - a reveal late in the game that changes the way we view everything that has come before it.  Ideally, a plot twist would be satisfying both in its surprise and in its ability to illuminate and bring into focus the work we've done and the things we've learned as readers up to that point. The twist in Vanishing Girls is, in my opinion, obvious to the reader long before the protagonist is aware of it.  And the thing is, it's an incredibly tedious experience to wait around for your narrator to figure out what you, the reader, already know; to have to watch the world of the story through a lens that you know is a false one.  It makes you impatient and irritable with the protagonist.

I have never been good at waiting.  I like action.  I like to be doing something.  To this day, I still carry a book everywhere I go so that any time spent waiting is actually time spent reading - doing something that matters to me.  One of the fundamental ways my husband and I are different is in our reactions to stress.  When I feel stress thickening the air around me, my first instinct is always action - even if that action is just going for a run or pulling out my yoga mat.  I like to be in motion.  I like to feel my muscles moving in concert with each other, clearing the air for me to breathe.  When arguments happen, I will never, if left to my own devices, leave the room until it's done.  I don't want to calm down, I don't want to walk away and let the dust settle and then resume when we're all calmer.  I want to act.  My husband isn't like that.  When he feels stress, his first instinct is to wait - to take a quiet moment by himself to think and calm down until the stress dissipates and he can face whatever storm is brewing with a clear mind. 

This ability to wait, to find stillness and perspective and then act with precision, is something that I deeply admire in him.  One of the first things I ever noticed about Javi when we first met - working in a busy Times Square restaurant in the middle of the holiday rush - was his patience.  Even in the midst of the chaos and frenzy of the kitchen where people were rushing around and speaking in tight, high-pitched voices, he never lost that ability to wait and hold his calm.  Watching him from my spot behind the bar, I used to think of his patience as his armor, subtle and soft, but impenetrable.  Table 12's order might be falling apart around him and everyone might be yelling and cursing and losing their minds, but stress couldn't find its way past his patience.  It's the first thing that made me want to know him.

Paulo Coelho wrote this about waiting, "[Waiting] was the first lesson I had learned about love. The day drags along, you make thousands of plans, you imagine every possible conversation...and you feel more and more anxious until your loved one arrives. But by then, you don't know what to say. The hours of waiting have been transformed into tension, the tension has become fear."**

Here's another thing I've learned about waiting from Javi - he doesn't wait long.  He takes a moment, finds that stillness and lets it arm him in patience, but then he moves.  He moves with speed and care, and gets things done.  Patience isn't about waiting forever, it's about timing.  In a story, it's about knowing when a moment of suspense - of waiting - will make the story more powerful.  Waiting on characters for a little while is okay.  Sometimes if we care for them enough, it's exciting to walk a step or two ahead, before they catch up and take over the leading again.  But, if we wait too long, the waiting is transformed into tension, and the tension transformed not into fear as Coelho said, but indifference.  We stop caring.  Maybe that was, in the end, my problem with Vanishing Girls.  The wait was just too long. 

*The cover art for Vanishing Girls was done by Anastasia Volkova with jacket design by Erin Fitzsimmons.
**From By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho