Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron
Masterfully written ‘prattle’ (meant positively)
Story blurb: Though he’s been accepted by Brown University, 18-year-old James isn’t sure he wants to go to college. What he really wants is to buy a nice house in a small town somewhere in the Midwest—Indiana, perhaps. In the meantime, however, he has a dull, make-work job at his thrice-married mother’s Manhattan art gallery, where he finds himself attracted to her assistant, an older man named John. In a clumsy attempt to capture John’s attention, James winds up accused of sexual harassment! A critically acclaimed author of adult fiction, Cameron makes a singularly auspicious entry into the world of YA with this beautifully conceived and written coming-of-age novel that is, at turns, funny, sad, tender, and sophisticated. James makes a memorable protagonist, touching in his inability to connect with the world but always entertaining in his first-person account of his New York environment, his fractured family, his disastrous trip to the nation’s capital, and his ongoing bouts with psychoanalysis. In the process he dramatizes the ambivalences and uncertainties of adolescence in ways that both teen and adult readers will savour and remember.
About the author: Peter Cameron was born in Pompton Plains, New Jersey in 1959 and grew up there and in London, England. He spent two years attending the progressive American School in London, where he discovered the joys of reading, and began writing stories, poems, and plays. Cameron graduated from Hamilton College in New York State in 1982 with a B.A. in English Literature.
Review by Gerry Burnie
I use the term “prattle” in a positive way. It is a literary device that can be very effective when used by a master ‘wordsmith’ like Peter Cameron; a form of improvisation that I envy. However, when it gets too-clever-by-half it can be become oppressive. That is the situation with “Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You” (Picador; Reprint edition April 28, 2009.)
On the positive side the characters are all well developed in such a way as to be ‘interesting’; like green hair. James is precocious, brilliant and cynical. We never do find out what he likes—except Anthony Trollope, his co-worker, John, and his grandmother Nanette—but we do find out what he doesn’t like: people his own age; nearly everything about modern society; and college because of the previous reasons.
His family, e.g. mother, father and sister, are a pretentious lot, and a thinly-veiled representation of “Yuppy” society. His mother, thrice married, has picked another ‘winner’ and ends the marriage before the honeymoon is over. His father, the senior partner of a Manhattan law firm, eats steak because it is a sign of success, and his sister is cynical but without James’ smarts to make it meaningful.
However, the plot is a bit more difficult to nail down, precisely. One gets the feeling of tagging along with James with no particular destination in mind. We tag along to his mother’s art gallery where the featured exhibition is a collection garbage cans with no name (“art should speak for itself”), and peer over his shoulder while he ‘sabotages’ John’s attempt to find a mate on the “Gents4Gents” website.
We also accompany him on a particularly ‘awful’ workshop, known as “The American Classroom” in Washington DC, and sit with him while he undergoes therapy. However, none of the foregoing ever seems to get resolved. It just meanders, and this is where the “prattle” becomes just that.
Nonetheless James is a likable kid, and from his point of view it all makes sense. Moreover, there is much about this story that resonates long after one puts it down. Cameron raises some very thought provoking notions, and for this reason it gets my recommendation.
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