A theatrical first novel from Bosworth (stories: A Burden of Earth, 1995) folds fanciful literary time travel into the more earthbound coming-of-age travails of a young girl in late-’60s New Jersey.
Seventh-grader Rachel Finch is asthmatic and a seriously dorky bookworm whose passions run to Bertram Russell, the Dewey decimal system, and Franz Kafka, her activity confined as much by her overprotective father as by her asthma. At home, Rachel witnesses the growing rift between her parents. At school, her racially diverse classmates, who mixed together so easily in earlier grades, are fragmenting into angry cliques. And Rachel is getting hate notes, very possibly from her adored older sister. But Rachel escapes her unhappy daily life when she travels with S-Man, a politically correct if not terribly exciting superhero who travels through time to save literary greats from disaster. With Rachel’s help, he loosens Shakespeare’s writer’s block, stops Louis XIV from banning Diderot’s encyclopedia, and saves Chinua Achebe’s family from a bombing. In between archly highbrow escapades, Rachel develops a new friendship in real time. Rachel Fish shares Rachel Finch’s (if you like the book, you’ll also like the name similarity) literary passions and is equally if more bravely dorky. Rachel Finch hates keeping her life with S-Man a secret from this friend who is pulling her into real-life adventure, and Rachel’s two lives begin to converge when S-Man’s nemesis Laff Riot turns up in Teaneck. First, Rachel must help S-Man save all the great artists and thinkers who have ever been censured by society from a paradise of forgetfulness that would obviate their achievements. (If this sounds vague, it is.) Then S-Man helps her when a crazy Vietnam vet takes over Back-to-School night with Rachel’s schoolmates as paramilitary underlings. Lots of fireworks, literal and literary, but the writing is so self-consciously clever that even when a major character dies, the reader is likely to be unmoved.
Dazzling and off-putting at the same time.