Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston Dutton, March 2016 Reviewed from a final copy I’m not for sure where I’m landing in this review, so I guess I’ll have to write it and see where I end up. Ha, I guess I’m flying right now, and I’m hoping this review (or you all, […]

exitExit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
Dutton, March 2016
Reviewed from a final copy

I’m not for sure where I’m landing in this review, so I guess I’ll have to write it and see where I end up. Ha, I guess I’m flying right now, and I’m hoping this review (or you all, in the comments) will catch me. I definitely loved this book, and feel like it’s continuing my tough lady reading streak this year. With four starred reviews, I know I’m not alone in that love. Johnston is a past Morris honoree, too, so I have no doubt RealCommittee is taking a careful look at this title. Exit is emotional and compelling, it has strong characters, often funny dialogue, and as a story it balances uncertainty and resolution very delicately and deftly.

Something small but that I really loved was how seriously it took and compelling it made cheerleading. Johnston’s sporty descriptions never bogged down the plot or distracted the reader from the main meat of the story; they added tension and allowed us to understand the main characters better than we otherwise would. The excellent sports writing really helped the novel gel in a lot of ways. The team’s support and teamly-ness seems like it means more because the work is so difficult and the competition is so steep. As a result, the victory at the end also seems more meaningful. I’m not always a huge sports fan, but sports writing will always get me. Showing the team camaraderie added other kinds of depth as well. We have a subtle, effective juxtaposition when we get hints of how Amy’s year has gone, when compared to the teens at Palermo. What would Hermione’s year have been like without her teammates?

Which leads me to the support system overall that Johnston gives her heroine. While the individual characters are very well defined, I think the thing that will stay with me the longest is the picture of what a supportive, kind, and generous support system looks like. How remarkable is that support system? How remarkable is it that we must remark on that support system? Exit makes totally clear just how gruelling and difficult moving past sexual assault is, and Hermione’s people hold her, help her, and support her every step of the way. It’s important that this aspirational depiction exists; it gives readers an understanding that they deserve such support in their lives. And by process of extrapolation, it allows readers to better realize what sorts of tremendous strengths people have to have when they lack such strong and generous support systems.

The ways that these teens take care of each other are very powerful. The reverse is equally true; when Hermione asks for help, we understand both her need and her strength. The cheerleading team as a whole is full of strong characterization: Hermione and Polly, of course, but also Dion, Mallory, Cameron, Tig. Even immature Leo grows up a little and sees beyond himself by the end. Some of the more minor tertiary characters are little more than names (Astrid? The Sarahs?), but they stay enough in the background that it all generally works.

The way that Exit plays with The Winter’s Tale also really worked for me (but I’ve not read it, only seen the version that my school put on last year). The characters were all basically pulled from the play, but made a little more ordinary and well developed. There were the people tieing the two works together, and emotional and thematic connections. It was never too on-the-nose, and it meant that a reader doesn’t have to have read TWT in order to appreciate Exit; familiarity deepens the reading experience, but doesn’t define it. The moments when the curse comes together with imagery from the play are my favorite. (The flower on Clara’s grave, Hermione’s refusal to be a statue at the end.)

So are there things that don’t work? There is some flat dialogue mixed in with all the funny. There were a few moments where resolution seemed a little too simple. The phone call at the end with Dr Hutt felt too quick and easily done to me, for example — and that should have been a bigger moment. Leo as a character fares a little better than Leontes, and Hermione’s inability to recognize his immaturity feels like a problematic blind spot…or a leftover contrivance from the play. Much as I absolutely adored Polly, her rebuttal to the reporter seems a little too perfectly worded for a teenager caught off guard by a terrible question about her best friend. (That being said, it was still an emotionally powerful moment, and satisfying to read.)

All of those problems seem really small, but I’m not totally sure I’m ready to call this a contender for the year. Maybe you all can catch me now, in the comments. What do you think?

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