Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Peter Cameron

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You cover
I was rather torn between wanting to love this book (evocative title, colleague recommendation, a flap that begins “In re: James Sveck — eighteen-year-old New Yorker, charming, precocious, confused, doesn’t quite fit in (doesn’t really want to)”) and expecting to hate it (how very much the reviews, and the book itself, want it to be the second coming of Holden Caulfield, who annoyed me plenty the first time).

And in the end, it was some of both, which averages out to “meh.” James’s entire family talks in a pretentious, self-satisfied way that I cannot stand. Here James’s mother correctly identifies what bugs me about James, and manages to bug me herself in the process:

“…Frances says Olivia adores Brown.”
“Yes: adores. What’s wrong with that?”
“I don’t know. I just think it’s a little weird to adore a college.”
“Sometimes I can’t stand you, James. You’re so reluctant to show any enthusiasm about anything, or even allow it in other people. It’s very annoying, and immature.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “I’m enthusiastic about many things.”

He then names a random house for sale in Kansas, Trollope, and a couple of other writers — without much actual enthusiasm. I spent the first half of the book rolling my eyes: the petty ennui of the privileged teen may be authentic, but that doesn’t make it interesting. I didn’t buy that he actually had any pain; he just seemed to be whining about nothing, and refusing to enjoy his life.*

But as the book wore on and he spent more time with his grandma, I liked him better. She’s a neat old lady who brings out the best in him. By the end of the book, I had more patience with him — though he’s still a prickly, odd young man whose company I wouldn’t enjoy in person, and didn’t particularly enjoy in print.

This book was critically very well-received, though, so your mileage may vary. Particularly if you do like whiny slackers like Holden Caulfield. *ducks*

* I have depression, and it was far worse when I was James’s age. So I do understand that you don’t have to be abused or dying of cancer to have pain. But if that’s the sort of pain that Cameron meant James to have, he didn’t convey it (at least to me).

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3 Responses to Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Peter Cameron

  1. Pingback: The Kid Table, by Andrea Seigel

  2. Martini-Corona says:

    It’s not YA, but this is totally why I didn’t get more than 20 pages into The Emperor’s Children.

  3. And what’s wrong with adoring Brown? Huh? huh? (puffs chest).

    Seriously, I have to confess to getting tired of certain kinds of coming of age tales, particularly ones focusing on comfortably well off kids abounding in ennui.

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