How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland
What I said then:
Debut from an interesting Aussie author about a girl on exchange in America.
What I say now:
Lou Connor, a stroppy teenager too smart for her bogan Sydney family, plots an escape from their stultifying home and heads to suburban Chicago on a student exchange. The Hardings, her host family---affluent, fashionable, pampered---try and make her feel welcome, but Lou's self-destructive habits continually drive a wedge between them. Soon her presence causes cracks to appear in the facade of the Hardings' laundry-commercial lives, and the differences in temperament prove insurmountable.
Lou is a fascinating character, and Hyland nails her tone of voice, giving us a complicated, flawed teenager. She's super smart in some ways but kind of clueless emotionally (the way all teenagers are), and she constantly thinks she can get away with more than she really can. She reads way above her level, but drinks way above her level too, using alcohol as a crutch any time things get tough. She looks down on her low-rent, unambitious family in Sydney, but seems to do everything she can to sabotage her chances of leaving them behind. It's a tour de force performance from Hyland.
The other thing that makes the novel memorable is its depiction of the Hardings and their milieu. It's a vision of a suburban Americana that is too perfect to actually exist, but nobody will admit that their lives aren't as picture perfect as they appear. It's like the whole family is trapped inside a staged photo portrait, their shiny white smiles fixed in place for all eternity. Lou's sulking, snarky presence invades the Harding home like a rank smell, and she wears them down until each member (except for the shopping-obsessed teen daughter) eventually admits to her their secret dissatisfactions.
Plot-wise, it meandered a little too much for my taste. When Lou's at the Hardings the book falls into a distinct pattern: she tries to fit in, the pressure to act a certain way gets to her, she acts out (boozing, smoking, falling for a ne'er-do-well who talks her into taking speed) then gets caught, and she vows to try harder to fit in. This pattern repeats a few times, and (as enjoyable as Lou's voice is), I thought it needed more variation. There's also a couple of late-book swerves (into a rooming house for failed exchange students, then into a placement with a secondary family) that were interesting, but didn't quite feel properly integrated into the whole narrative.
Those were pretty minor complaints, though, and How The Light Gets In is worth a read for Lou's brilliantly constructed voice: she's bitter, insouciant, troubled, intelligent, emotionally stunted ... and fascinating company.