The Russians Are Coming…to New York City: Rose Sees Red

Very NYC Meets Briar Rose...

You might remember Cecil Castellucci as the author of such fab fare as The Queen of Cool, Boy Proof, and most importantly, the graphic gems PLAIN Janes and Janes in Love. When I first read about PLAIN Janes I moved heaven and earth to get myself a copy. What is not to love about four quirky girls who all happen to be named Jane who form a secret all-girl ART gang, dedicated to thought-provoking works of neighbourhood guerilla art?! Being a child of the Spice Girl generation, I have a deep appreciation for nicknames like SportyJane, MainJane, and BrainJayne. This slim graphic novel, written with Jim Rugg, is thoughtful, funny, romantic, inspiring, and most of all, hopeful. The covert art-based extracurricular activities and rag-tag group of misfits brings to mind Rob Thomas’  awesome Rats Saw God. If you haven’t yet, you must read it. 

And so it was with great expectations that I picked up the ARC for Castellucci’s upcoming teen offering, Rose Sees Red. Despite her colourful name, Rose has decided to forego all colour in her life in favour of black. She is suffering from some severe self-doubt and self-loathing brought on by evil ex-best friend Daisy and the pressures of being a dancer at a performing arts high school. But her carefully constructed world is shattered when mysterious Russian neighbour Yrena turns up in her bedroom one night, setting in motion a cataclysmic evening for everyone involved.

The novel takes place in 1982 NYC*, a time when Americans were still suspicious of anything even remotely Eastern Bloc and still got excited about things like Anti-Nuclear War marches. Over the course of the night, Rose, Yrena, and a motley crew of new friends attend a party on the stairs of MOMA (how Fame is that?), check out the famous Russian Tea Room (where there is a Betty Buckley sighting!!), attend a political rally, debate peace, justice and the American dream, and get interrogated by the feds.

There is something starry-eyed and optimistic about this novel, despite the narrator’s initial pessimistic outlook on life. I found myself alternately frustrated and enchanted by Rose, which I suspect was the writer’s intention. It’s frustrating to watch someone choose to be miserable, but I also understood how hard it was for Rose to shake off her past and embrace life again. It certainly helps that she has such a boisterous group of friends willing to pull her out of her funk. Oh, to have been a student at a performing arts high school. Le sigh.

I’m not sure if it’s my age, the fact that I am Canadian, or that I just can’t fathom the kind of institutionalized paranoia of the era, but  some of the politics and the US vs the USSR stuff really didn’t resonate with me, but I believed that it mattered to the characters, and the characters mattered to me, which is what’s important. I am always game for a New York story. Throw in a little Fame and a touch of John Green’s Paper Towns and I’m there.  In a nutshell, Rose Sees Red is a transformation story, not just for the sheltered Yrena grasping at once-in-a-lifetime freedom, but for Rose, who is trapped in an emotional prison of her own making.

Rose Sees Red will be available from Scholastic in August 2010.

* I hesitate to refer to this title as historical fiction, although it does evoke a time that has passed, despite what recent fashion is trying to tell me. Sorry friends. There is never a time or a place for shoulder pads or flourescent anything. I don’t care what American Apparel says.

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