review published on November 4, 2013. Reviewed by Davida Chazan
Authors have always been told “write what you know”, but as far as I can tell, this is a rule that Mr. Burnett has shunned totally. Had it resulted in an unsuccessful novel, would have been understandable. But amazingly, it doesn’t. How a 50-something male author can get so much into the head of a teenage girl is totally beyond me. And as far as I know, he hasn’t got any teen-aged daughters to draw upon either. Even if he did, I would certainly pray that he couldn’t possibly have used that personal experience as a model for his protagonist – Katie – who is in such a mess, it is a wonder that she can even get out of bed in the morning. Instead, Burnett seems to have gotten a whole lot right here, and in his novel Undiscovered Gyrl, Katie is frighteningly realistic.
Written in the form of an on-line blog, we witness all that Katie has been experiencing since finishing High School and deciding to take off a year before going to university. From the beginning, Katie tells us that she’s using a pseudonym and changing many details of her posts so that her followers can’t discover where she lives or who she really is. While this seems like a wise move, we soon discover that this is one of Katie’s few good decisions. Apparently Katie knows this, and yet cannot seem to help herself, even when her followers try to give her friendly or even belligerent advice. Katie is going full-tilt and one wonders if anything will stop her fall, or even if she wants to stop.
Having raised a daughter through her teens myself, I know full well how obstinate and difficult they can be. Moreover, since I somehow survived my own teenage years – including my parents’ divorce and my father’s subsequent remarriage – there is much about Katie with which I can (unfortunately) personally identify. Thankfully, my father wasn’t a drunk, but other than that, if there had been something out of place or unrealistic here, I think I would have noticed.
What makes this book so fascinating – and it truly is a page turner – is that despite what Katie thinks about herself and her self-destructive behavior, we can see both the good and the bad in Katie. We know when she’s on the wrong path, we ache to try and steer her in a better direction, and we pray that she’ll do something to straighten her out. That doesn’t mean that Katie is a total train wreck. No, there are times when Katie seems to be totally in control, responsible and caring. But one thing that Katie isn’t is predictable. This is what makes her such a special character – her humanity is all there: it’s realistic, it’s funny, it’s sad and it’s everything and anything. Moreover, even if we’ve never met someone like Katie she is still someone we can connect and empathize with. That means that despite all her faults, we like her and care about her.
It struck me that this book has a bit of a moral to it, or if you will, a warning to both young people and their parents in today’s on-line world. While on the one hand, Katie has done a smart thing by hiding her real name and location, on the other hand, her successful secrecy ends up being detrimental to her. Furthermore, Katie’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that there is no one in her life that she trusts or can be truly honest with. What’s more, that neither of her parents or their new partners seems to know her well enough to notice that there’s something wrong.
This book ends with lots of unanswered questions, and perhaps it is better this way. Had everything been tied up with a pretty bow, we wouldn’t have felt just how poignant this story is. We need to be left in the dark, in order to be left neither overly hopeful nor totally hopeless, and I think Burnett knew this. In all, Undiscovered Gyrl is a story about innocence and its loss, about youth in the world today – their potential and the paths they take that steer them either towards reaching it, or away from it. Powerful, moving and at times even funny, it is a novel that rings very true – and I highly recommend it.
(Note: Undiscovered Gyrl is presently being made into a film, which is being directed by the author himself!)