“The Tragedy Paper,” by Elizabeth LaBan, is a modern-day love triangle that draws inspiration from the tragic works of Shakespeare. Tim Macbeth is a smart, observant, and introverted loner who transfers into the prestigious Irving School halfway through his senior year. The move is intentional for two reasons. Tim’s mother is newly remarried. The Irving School is his new dad’s alma mater, and Sid has only wonderful things to say about his years there.
But even more importantly, both Tim and his parents feel the change might make Tim’s last memories of high school happy ones, for Tim isn’t isolated from others merely by choice. He also happens to be an albino. The extreme nature of his physical appearance not only causes Tim certain physical limitations, but has also made it difficult for him to fit in throughout the course of his life.
While Tim has accepted the nature of his condition, he is painfully aware of how it makes him stand out, and he is very attuned to the reactions of others. He feels more comfortable being on his own, in the safety of familiar and protected places. Despite this, he is open to the suggestion, drawn in by Sid’s charmed memories of prep school life.
But Tim hasn’t even arrived before he meets, and falls for, the beautiful Vanessa. The typical “it” girl, Vanessa is everything Tim isn’t: confident, popular—and physically attractive. The two meet when their flight to school is grounded due to bad weather. Much to Tim’s surprise, not only does Vanessa deem him worthy of her company, but she even seems to like him! But Tim’s puppy-love high quickly comes crashing down when he learns that she has a (cute and cool) boyfriend waiting for her back at school.
Falling for Vanessa kills any chance of Tim enjoying the last leg of his high school career. His infatuation grows and, consequently, so does his self-loathing. He doesn’t try to get to know others, and he constantly compares himself to her “it” boyfriend, Patrick. Vanessa doesn’t make it easier for Tim either, as she continues to spend time with him, albeit secretively and at random. Not only does this take an emotional toll on Tim, but his insecurities about his condition cause him to hide his limitations and ignore his increasing health problems. Unfortunately, it is these unwise actions that have tragic consequences and lead to Tim’s ultimate downfall.
The Tim-Vanessa-Patrick storyline is interwoven into the senior year storyline of another student, Duncan Meade. Duncan is one year younger than Tim and, while they don’t know each other, at least not directly, their lives become inextricably tied. As the story progresses—through Tim’s first-person recollections interspersed into Duncan’s third-person narrative—suspense is built about the tragic events that will unfold, as well as how they ultimately link the two boys.
Giving direction and providing the theme for both storylines is the infamous and all-consuming Irving School senior year assignment: The Tragedy Paper. Mr. Simon, the engaging and theatrical English teacher, is revered, if not a little feared, for his final exercise: an epic paper in which the students must define and discuss a tragedy as portrayed in the works of Shakespeare. Tim reveals to Duncan at the outset that his personal experiences from the prior school year will give Duncan the ultimate help in completing his own senior year assignment. Duncan, in turn, becomes consumed with Tim’s story, and begins to view his entire senior year through the dire literary lens.
As an English major (read: nerd) who enjoyed my high school English classes more than any image-conscious teen would ever dare admit, I appreciate LaBan’s take on tragedy, incorporating the classroom into the social scene, and using an assignment to tell the story and develop the overarching theme of the novel. However, in general I found “The Tragedy Paper” a bit heavy-handed and much of the writing unbelievable.
While Tim is a bright and thoughtful narrator, he doesn’t speak like a normal high school student. His first-person narrative often sounds more like LaBan’s voice than that of her character, as the things highlighted and described are not necessarily the things that would be important to a typical 17-year-old boy. The Irving School is also a bit too “idyllic prep school,” complete with fresh-baked bread in the cafeteria and haunting legends that give the students shivers to recall. When I think about the things most teenagers are watching on TV or listening to on their iPods, “scary school stories” seem a bit dated and out of touch.
Finally, the way the main characters’ names are taken straight from Shakespeare’s Macbeth induced some eye-rolling. I suppose a high school reader might not be as familiar with Shakespeare, in which case LaBan might simply be creating a teaching moment. But it still feels forced and as likely to actually happen as a Montague and a Capulet ending up working the night shift together at a plastic parts plant.
Despite these weaknesses, “The Tragedy Paper” does give a modern spin to a classic literary genre and provide ample opportunity for discussion about both literature and life. LaBan has even included a writing assignment at the end. Along with the much-highlighted theme of tragedy, the book also discusses identity and belonging, isolation and the importance of relationships, honesty and deceit, and the ultimate role and significance of the choices we make, no matter how seemingly small. While “tragic,” it was not a dark novel and, with a few exceptions in passages of description and conversation, there was little inappropriate content.
Image copyright Knopf Books for Young Readers. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
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