Hardcover, 432 pages
Published 1st July by Putnam Juvenile
The first thing I want to say about Conversion is that it does not contain a romanticized portrayal of adolescence. The characters are less caricatures and stereotypes and more realistic individuals who could easily (and probably some version of them do) exist in life. That said, I think that rather than getting inside the head of the protagonist, the reader, due to the way the story is narrated, maintains a distance from the protagonist throughout the novel. Thereis an adult voice somewhere in the narrative and that is the lens the reader looks through. I don’t know if this was intentional but I was cognizant of a sense of “adolescent” and “adult” that has not been present in other books I have read.
The book is set in a highly competitive private Catholic school for girls. The attention granted to academia is actually refreshing because most of the times school is usually mentioned as an afterthought and the protagonists usually do not need to (or don’t) do their homework or turn in papers on time. In this novel, succeeding academically is at the forefront of all girls in the senior class. I understand that and in fact, empathize because I went through something very similar when I was in high school. When the most popular girl in school has some sort of fit and comes down with a mysterious illness, people are worried. But this worry escalates into fear when this illness spreads like fire among other girls in the school. Colleen, the protagonist of the novel, has no idea what is going on but her dedication to her schoolwork begins to slip as she finds a new boyfriend and realizes that one of her best friends is going through something very serious. Her teacher lets her do a research paper on The Crucible for extra credit, she begins to notice some similarities in the story depicted in the classic and what is happening in her school. Juxtaposed with the primary narrative is the story of a girl who may have contributed to some of the deaths in the Salem Witch Trials.
I liked the novel. I liked the quiet density of it. It doesn’t have the flash and drama and world-ending epic quality that other novels do. The novel emphasizes friendship and though there is romance, it is most certainly a subplot. The pacing is measured – not slow but not lagging either. Howe explores the effect academic pressure has on our children and perhaps the story is meant for adults, to ask them if this is where they want to take their children, how they want them to remember their childhood.
I also liked how, though the explanation for the story is different than a reader may expect, Howe blurs the lines by throwing in a possibility that maybe not everything has a simple explanation, that there are things in this world that do not follow logic or make sense.
Tl;dr? I liked this novel. Give it a rainy Sunday afternoon and you may too.