Friday, February 12, 2010

How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford

"See that guy?" Anne pointed out a schlub sporting a cardigan and shaggy sideburns. At his side stood a surprisingly perky brunette. "That's Clayton. He's the head of the Neurobiology department. His wife is a bed stylist."...
"What's a bed stylist?" I asked.
"She works for homewares, when they shoot their catalogues," Anne said. "Her whole, entire career consists of arranging the beds so they're artfully crumpled in the pictures. Like someone just had great sex in them."
"That's her job?"
"For real."
We snickered...

Well, I just want to know why no one told me this job existed when I was thinking about my career options!

Actually, the bed stylist is pretty typical of the characters we meet in How to Say Goodbye in Robot. "Quirky" is a word that comes up a lot when people are describing this book. I mean, look at the telephone on the cover. What teen in their right minds would be using a phone like that? Oddball teens, that's who. Teens who don't fit in with the crowd. Loners who are disparaged by their families and peers with names like "ghost boy" and "robot girl". Unlikely friends who communicate with each other partly via a late-night talk radio show on an oldies station. Where we, incidentally, get to know plenty of quirky old folks too.

It's Myrna. I believe in ghosts, Herb. I swear to God, one night when my late husband was in the hospital, not recuperating from his third and fatal heart attack, I was lying alone in my bed, and the ghost of Elvis came to comfort me. I use the word comfort as a euphemism, Herb. I'm sure all the ladies out there know what I'm talking about...

But I digress.

What makes How to Say Goodbye in Robot so real and good is that layered under its quirks and irony is an understated sadness. The story captures the complicated friendship of high school students Beatrice (robot girl) and Jonah (ghost boy). These two aren't very experienced at having friends; Jonah in particular hasn't made a new friend since third grade when his mother and twin brother were killed in a car accident and he withdrew from the world in grief. Somehow, Bea and Jonah find sympathetic spirits in each other. Ultimately, though, their closeness isn't nearly enough to save Jonah when he undergoes another devastating loss. In the end he simply disappears, leaving robot girl haunted by his absence.

I must admit the ending made me cry.

Standiford writes just beautifully here. The helplessness of loss is evoked so well. The family dynamics are heartbreaking. Relationships are broken; some heal, others don't. Even treasured friendships can be fragile.

Someday, I tell myself, the memories will fade away. Catso will just be a toy. A lock of white hair won't make me jump. I'll stare at the picture of the boy in the Casper mask, struggling to remember why I loved him.
That's how I imagine it, anyway.

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