Roth's imagining of poets Keats, Byron, and Shelly (a blending of Percy and Mary) in the present day centers almost exclusively on Byron, known as Gordon, despite being narrated by Keats. Following Shelly's apparent suicide, Gordon and Keats steal her ashes and, fleeing Shelly's sexually abusive father, they take a boat out on Lake Erie to fulfill her last wishes. Most of the story consists of Keats relaying Gordon's past adventures, including being sexually abused by his nanny, publishing a YA vampire book, seducing many women—including his cousin and possibly his half-sister—and briefly joining a Greek terrorist squad. Shelly is Gordon's neighbor and childhood best friend, but his feelings for her have remained platonic while she has fallen in love with him; Keats is Shelly's trusted friend, though there are only glimpses of that friendship. Despite the intriguing premise, excessive back-story and rehashing of Gordon's sexual conquests (however accurately they might resemble Lord Byron's) can grow tiring. But though readers may struggle to see past Gordon's unlikable personality, Shelly's ultimate wishes for Gordon and Keats provide satisfying closure. Ages 14–up. (Feb.)
Children's Literature - Elizabeth D. Schafer
Death torments rising high school senior John Keats, who cites facts regarding diseases and accidents associated with mortality, including those relevant to his parents' demises and his older brother's tuberculosis. Narrator Keats is fixated on two classmates, George Gordon Byron and Michelle "Shelly" Shelley, with whom he interacts on their school's literary magazine staff. Gordon and Shelly are reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age characters, living privileged, entitled, careless lifestyles in their affluent Lake Erie community. Keats runs away with Gordon after they grab the urn holding Shelly's ashes from her memorial service. As the pair evades capture, Keats provides characters' histories, recalling information Shelly had confided in him. An aspiring writer, Keats is enthralled with Gordon's flamboyant escapades and best-selling book achievements. Nothing frightens hedonistic Gordon, who revels in bedding females (even incestuously) by flaunting his exquisite physique and arrogantly discarding conquests, ignoring damage he provokes. Shelly is obsessed with causes such as Native American rights, exposing her vulnerabilities while intensely voicing opinions and protesting injustices. She loves the self-absorbed Gordon and is wounded by his rejection. Keats comprehends heartbreaking betrayals which are the catalysts for Shelly's downfall. Readers will be swept along with the fast-paced plot as Gordon's outrageousness builds tension and truths about Shelly's suicide are divulged. Imagery effectively conveys characters' unsettled, disrupted natures, as well as the frequently nocturnal or remote settings where their resilience is tested. The author's note outlines biographical details regarding Romantic poets he appropriated to shape this novel and provides recommended bibliographical resources. Read with Gregory Galloway's As Simple as Snow (2005) and John Green's Looking for Alaska (2005) and Paper Towns (2008). Reviewer: Elizabeth D. Schafer
VOYA - Amanda McFadden
Until now, high school junior John Keats has only tiptoed near the edges of the vortex that is schoolmate, and literary prodigy, Gordon Byronthat is, until their mutual friend, Shelly, drowns in a sailing accident. After stealing Shelly's ashes from her wake at Trinity Catholic High School, the boys set a course for the small Lake Erie island where Shelly's body had washed ashore and to where she wished to be returned. It would be one last "so Shelly" romantic quest. At least that's what they think. As they navigate around the obstacles and resist temptations during their odyssey, Keats and Gordon glue together the shattered pieces of Shelly's and their own pasts while attempting to make sense of her tragic and premature end. So Shelly is told by Keats, the confidante of both Gordon and Shelly, which makes for an absorbing plot. This reader is unsure whether knowing about the real-life poets is a hindrance or a help. The smooth, playful writing style skillfully intertwines the stories of the protagonists. Roth has penned a contemporary story of three teenagers' coming-of-age that takes the reader on a turbulent journey. The story contains a spattering of social issuesabortion, suicide, and sexual abusewhich are best suited to an older reader. The visually beautiful cover immediately catches attention. This novel may have limited readership but is one that teenage girls will thoroughly enjoy. Reviewer: Amanda McFadden
Fatalistic teen narrator John Keats opens this tale with his observation that most of us don't matter. Emotionally and financially distanced from his classmates at Trinity High, poor, doomed Keats delivers morbid statistics, occasional sermons about society's evils and the story of George Gordon Byron and Michelle "Shelly" Shelley. He begins with a funeral and ends with a burial, relating Gordon and Shelly's love/hate relationship between the two events. Like their namesakes (the Romantics Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, conflated to create Shelly, Lord Byron and John Keats), all three teenagers write, but their personal drama dwarfs their literary output. They are riveting but not entirely sympathetic characters, particularly Gordon, whom Keats portrays as a callous genius and womanizer. Roth supplements the namesakes' original scandals with abortion, alcohol, incest, masturbation and swearing. As anguished writers and tortured teens are universal, the narrative offers a powerful dose of modern teen cynicism and yearning; a subplot involving freedom fighters unnecessarily complicates an already full story. Lurid yet literary. (afterword, bibliography)(Fiction. 14 & up)
Read an Excerpt
It was the last day of school and the first day of summer. One of those limbo days, when you're not quite sure if you're ending or beginning. Either way, my junior year was over, and I hoped I'd never see another one like it. However, there was one more thing Gordon and I had to do before I could put the year fully to rest.
The gym was hotter than hell, but Gordon leaned back, as cool as ever, in one of the ungodly uncomfortable metal folding chairs that were arranged in a semicircle around a makeshift altar on which rested a black marble urn containing the ashes of our mutual best friend, Shelly. Gordon's plan was to steal the urn, drive to Shelly's, break into the pool shed where she'd kept her beloved boom box, shoot over to the island in one of Gordon's powerboats, and then spread her ashes while playing her favorite song from a disc she had bequeathed to me prior to her death. Not much in the way of funeral tributes, but all so Shelly.
According to Gordon, it was what she wanted, which, I know, leads to the question: Why would a healthy eighteen-year-old have thought to share her final wish at all, unless, of course, she knew her death was imminent? And if Gordon knew her demise was coming, why didn't he tell me? It seems obvious now; most things do in retrospect. But since Gordon and Shelly had been friends and neighbors for their entire lives, I figured her final wish had been the product of whimsical childhood speculation, protected by a secretly sworn pact. Shelly was a dreamer like that, full of "What if?'s" and "If only's."
Even if I had thought to ask the right questions at the appropriate times, the answers would have come too late to change the outcome. Anyway, even knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn't have changed a thing.
In theory, Gordon's plan was simple. In execution, it was not.
Trinity's gymnasium was packed for the early-evening wake with awkward teenage mourners--awkward, of course, because, while most present had flushed a goldfish or two or lost the occasional grandparent, few had attended a wake for someone their own age. Shelly's death was doubly aberrant, considering how extraordinarily alive she had always been--so alive that even the memory of her felt more vibrant than the breathing bodies that sat all around me. I, however, felt right at home. In just the past two years, I'd attended funerals for both of my parents, and Tom was, as I've said, not far behind.
Due to Shelly's fall-semester expulsion from Trinity, the school's administrators had hesitated to grant her father's request for the use of the gymnasium, which was the only venue large enough in all of Ogontz, Ohio, to accommodate the large outpouring of young mourners. I've learned that although there is a seemingly endless list of indiscretions that one may perform without being excommunicated from Trinity--including exposing yourself to a junior varsity cheerleader, screwing your English teacher, and stealing and consuming communion wine from the school chapel, all of which Gordon committed with relative impunity--writing a measly five-hundred-word essay on the necessity of atheism that, against all odds, gets published in the "My Turn" section of Newsweek is not on it. It was only Mr. Shelley's record of consistent and generous donations that convinced the administration to allow the wake to take place on school grounds.
But his donation, of an amount that only he, God, and Monsignor Moore (the pastor at All Saints Catholic Church) knew, was not an act of selfless grief. The public wake at Trinity was a transparent ploy by Shelly's father to keep her friends (think Gordon) away from the official funeral services. A members-of-the-family-only gathering was planned for the next evening at their home, with a funeral mass at All Saints scheduled for the morning after.
Like Gordon's, Shelly's family lived on a peninsular strip of beach-lined property that juts into Lake Erie, separating the lake from the Ogontz Bay. Locals call that strip the Strand. Seasonal residents from nearby Cleveland and Toledo, and from as far away as Columbus, Cincinnati, and Detroit, populate the majority of the sprawling lakeside mansions during the summer, but a handful of Ogontz's gentry call Acedia, a gated community on the Strand, home. The ultra-exclusive subdivision was intended to be named for Arcadia, the idyllic rural region of southern Greece, but when the wrought iron gate with the subdivision's name artistically rendered across the top arrived misspelled, no one bothered to have it corrected or to look up the meaning of "acedia," which is "spiritual or mental sloth."
Most of the "mourners" had hardly known Shelly, but it's hard to resist any chance for drama or dressing up when you're a teenager in Ogontz. And drama there was.
Shelly's disappearance and the subsequent discovery of her body, washed ashore on a small Lake Erie island, had earned her the sort of attention that nothing in her lifetime ever had. Several national cable networks had sent reporters and camera crews, intrigued by what they called Shelly's "socialite" family and her connection to Gordon, but the reporters immediately lost interest when foul play was eliminated and her death was ruled an accidental drowning. (Each year, fewer than 3 percent of all deaths of teenagers between the ages of fifteen and nineteen are caused by accidental drowning.) The cameras immediately moved on to their next fatality, this one having been bled dry. (A Class IV hemorrhage, which involves the loss of more than 40 percent of a person's blood, often results in one's bleeding to death.)
Despite the whirring of my mind and the turning of my stomach, I sat relatively still and looked around me. Even with the ceiling exhaust fan humming, the humidity inside the gymnasium refused to vacate the premises, as if its stultifying presence were necessary for the somber occasion and it felt obligated to fulfill its solemn duty.
From the Hardcover edition.