It is an odd thing to read a book that takes place in your home. I've read other books set in Humboldt County in Northern California in the United States: My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent; is an excellent example of this, since even if it is set in Mendocino County - well, it isn't like Mendocino is that different, so it seems exactly like something which could happen in Humboldt as well. Far Less by Kathy Wollenberg however, really is set almost next door to me, in Arcata. It is eerie to read a book which goes to places (although frankly the book's geography seems mildly distorted from reality), and sees things which you yourself have seen, which traces your footsteps, to make you think that the people in it are almost people who you could see as you walk around in your life. Per
And I think that this was quite definitively a purposeful endeavor on Wollenberg's part, since her main character, Jesse, is homeless - and yet he hides it well enough that few people realize. Homelessness is a very widespread issue in Humboldt County and indeed in all of California, one where a society that prides itself on being tolerate, compassionate, and helping the less fortunate reveals its hypocrisy, with legions of downtrodden, impoverished, ignored people, driven onto the streets by a range of factors - mental illness, troubled homes, drugs, but above all else by crushingly expensive housing which makes life in California simply unaffordable for many people. I know a coworker who had to devote nearly half, and sometimes more than half, of her income every month to just paying rent - and that's with a full time job. True, none of us are paid well, criminally underpaid in my opinion, but the fact that one can barely afford housing with a full time job is an incredible travesty. So you get plenty of cases where people are out on the streets - or in Wollenberg's book, in the woods. In this regards, it matches the stereotypes of homeless people, mentally ill or drug addled, but what makes it distinct is that Jesse and his little sister are assimilated into normal school and society, while still being homeless - and this is something few people grasp. The implication is obvious: who else around you could be homeless but nobody realizes, nobody knows?
And indeed, this is possible to some extent: I have known people who have been homeless, albeit with some support (such as living in their car but at a friend's house so that one can take showers at least), and have put on a good impression of being completely fine. But what strikes me in Wollenberg's book is that she seems to have an urge to make Jesse almost completely unfazed by it. Certainly, Jesse must have grown up quickly in conditions of living in the woods, with limited food, with his mentally ill mother and taking care of his sister. But the fact that he can hide his plight in front of other students at his high school so well, that he is quite the romantic star, that he accomplishes massive achievements like finding an entire new species of salamander - it seems too perfect, too trite.
The romantic side of the book seems contrived to me in particular. I'll freely admit that I am not a very good person romantically, but it strikes me as incredible and unlikely how Jesse proves to be so successful romantically despite his own personal woes and problems. Jesse seems like a person who simply succeeds in everything that he personally does - tremendously smart, a successful naturalist, romantically successful, a provider for his sister, to the extent that you can almost forget he is homeless, as if the homelessness is just there to make you feel pity for him. But the romantic relationships seem shallow, and the sex scenes in it ill placed, not fitting to the style of the rest of the book, as if the author had a vision of what teenage life is supposed to be like and had to check off teenage sex on the list.
There are again, some real bright spots to the book. It has compassion to its characters, it has an excellent contrast of the image presented in public of people like Jesse or Lizzie, it has a touching scene of the death of a mentally ill veteran and the antiwar feelings he expresses, it gives what seems like a real, honest depiction of mental illness and its effects. But it is let down for me but what seems like an overly idyllic and caricaturized depiction of the people inside, which cause the author to have to work to make her story fit the message. It is a good message, and there are again flashes of excellence, but it makes it less than it could otherwise ahve been.