Review of You’ve Learned Something by Laverty Palmer
by Lucy Farcnik
It’s the gritty 1990s in a fictional Montreal university. A similar scene to one you’ve read many, many times before: a ragtag group of misfits come together in unlikely circumstances and stumble across a mystery/murder/miscellaneous challenge that perfectly fits their group dynamic. There is friendship, romance, and slapdash action. There are good guys, and the bad guys get caught. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s…basically like reading Scooby Doo.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not usually super-critical of fiction. Over terrible poetry or nonfiction weighty enough to take out an eyeball, I’ll take a plot-free, snooze-fest of a novel any day. I firmly believe that DNFing is giving up, and I am not a quitter. So you really know that when I can’t finish a book, it’s terrible. And, no offense to the author, Laverty Palmer, but the main characters Mira, Jackie, Ann Krystel and Binh are simply too fantastical to be believable.
First of all, whoever thought it would be a good idea to write a novel thoroughly obsessed with this magazine that the characters edit for their school is insane. I mean, has anyone ever loved a school club that much? They make it out to be some sort of cult. They all sit in the ESAC office, waxing poetic about commas and critical analysis. It’s enough to make one claw their eyes out. Plus, they call their magazine Villanelles. Pretentious much, Laverty Palmer? We get it, you’re literary. Just call it Sentences for us common folk.
The rest of Villanelles's team is the same. Their manic-pixie-dream-girl personas of Montreal vintage clothes, reading Proust on the train, underpriced coffees and drinking cheap beer in Reginald's, the on-campus saloon, is too much. Sabrina, Vic and Zoe battle it out in Mr. Diduck’s classes against Ennie, Alessia and Sabyah for intellectual superiority and the right to advance into the department poetry competition, moderated by everyone’s favourite, Stephano Bolster. Does the trophy go missing, you ask? If only it were that simple.
So what, pray tell, is the conflict of this story? Yes, dear reader, these awesome lives go on for chapters and chapters before Palmer finally gets around to the conflict…of the missing Adobe login. I mean seriously. The fair-trade, ethically printed post-it with some reference to Tracy Chapman goes missing, and no one can get into InDesign to fix the pages before Villanelles's publication.
This book is so poorly done mostly because this is the singular most unbelievable conflict I have ever read in a novel. Any and all editors of literary magazines and anthologies understand how to use password keys, or their memories, or carrier pigeons. In fact, it might just be the most unrealistic conflict of all time. And the worst thing is, nobody notices! Why does it take until chapter 27 for this realization to hit? The characters are all too busy being friends! They’re practically braiding each other's hair and singing harmonized Jane Eyre parodies of pop songs.
And to top it off, the story ends with a cameo, like some sort of Freudian self-insert. Laverty Palmer comes to the Villanelles reading event (Valentine’s Day themed, ew) but gets too nervous to perform. So what does our little scholastic society do? They hold hands on either side of Laverty Palmer, to lend them bravery or whatever. Cringe. The heartfelt moment ends with hugs from our last-minute character additions Yael and Santiago, who, through the power of introspection and well-written articles, have their fingers on the pulse of Villanelles's cast of characters. They’re meant to be close advisors to the management of the magazine, but…they don’t provide any criticism. Laverty Palmer has literally given his characters zero flaws. Unrealistic.
So, what do I think of this terribly self-indulgent first novel from Laverty Palmer? Well, just that: it's terrible. It’s too perfect. The characters are too deep, well-mannered and unique, and the magazine is far too cool and well-oiled to be believable. And don’t get me started on this idealized Montreal, with its dirty linoleum floors, student bars and well-stocked used bookstores. It’s a farce, really. All in all, I have to give You’ve Learned Something 1.5 out of 5 stars. It seems like Villanelles is a great place to work, but I prefer strife, toxic work relationships and a good grisly murder in my novels. Too much love and mutual respect for me. Next!
Soliloquies wants to wish you a very happy (belated) April Fools Day. It really is the best place to work, so much so that I’ve been tempted to grow a mullet so I can have a patent-pending Soliloquies braid just like Laverty Palmer.