I was in a bit of a reading slump. I didn’t exactly avoid cracking the spine of the long, long autobiography I’d been carefully wading through; I’d find other things I needed to do instead. When laundry, cleaning the bathroom, and a trip to the Swedish furniture superstore/newly-discovered 10th circle of Dante’s hell were all excuses NOT to read it, though, it was obvious that I needed a break. I had to find another (very specific) book. My search for a literary boost—the book to goose my brain and propel me along to read more– became desperate. Fortunately, it came time on my work calendar to have a little “staycation” for more than a week, and I assembled a list of recommendations from my book club to best shut out the world for a while.
Kristin Cashore’s Jane Unlimited came up again and again. The Young Adult genre has always been a good method to get me excited about reading again, so the choice was obvious. Not quite a nesting-doll narrative, it does combine a type of puzzle-piece structure with elements of classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Shades of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with flavors of books like Vampire Express (Choose Your Own Adventure #66). Imagine rock climbing and finding several different toe holds; each spot a portal where the climber/reader stepped into a new genre style, while the previous genre played at a low volume in the background. (Better yet, picture finding out who was behind the curtain right away in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and then to have Oz himself interact as though that weren’t the case. A spoiler alert meant to expand the scope of the world and get one over on the big bad meanie of this particular world.)
The author’s enjoyment of some genres over others was evident. She had the rhythms and red herrings of murder mysteries; the dark foreboding background hum of Gothic drama was especially satisfying. The ongoing exploration of Sapphic identity and romance felt organic and genuine, as well. (It was oh so very adorable in the best way.) When she dipped her toe in the Douglas Adams pool, though, it was confusing and thankfully brief. And the farcical moments shouldn’t make Noel Coward too worried about which direction to spin in his grave.
One of the reasons Cashore’s Jane wasn’t as ground-breaking to me as Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was her use of character and voice. I understand that she limited (!!) herself with the use of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” concept and having to keep one perspective, but the book would have been greatly improved with this consideration. Some characters were fully developed by the end of the book while others existed as pure plot device. That left the motivations of various characters too muddy to make much of an impact.
Now, where Jane Unlimited really soared was when it explored the path of creativity. How do artists find their muse? Why do they see the world around them in the way that they do? Is it safe to trust the opinions of others or risk vulnerability only to have someone destroy the fragile grasp on your point-of-view? What creates a change in perspective? As an artist, these moments made me emotional because of their authenticity; the discovery and inevitable embrace of her Art believable. It takes so much strength to believe that what you’re creating truly matters to anyone let alone yourself, so to see “Janie” develop that control and confidence was moving.
I’m grateful that this charming book served its purpose as ‘literary booster’ and feel inspired to read as avidly as I was before my pit stop in the quagmire of autobiographies. 3.5 stars out of 5 for Kristin Cashore’s Jane Unlimited.