Elisa feels like an undercover agent. She’s not pretty like her mother and sister and her usual confidant, her father, is away for long stretches on business. She goes pretty much unnoticed at school, only getting brief attention from her “clients” – high school boys that buy metaphors from her in order to win over girls. But through her talent for writing and her newfound love of ice skating, Elisa slowly begins coming into her own.
Beth was afraid I wouldn’t like her style, what with my usual focus on high-concept, plot driven novels. But she needn’t have worried. I also enjoy quiet, literary novels, especially when they are as well written, captivating and inspiring as this one.
Elisa is a character I think many of us “bookish” types can relate to. I wasn’t as invisible or friendless in high school as Elisa, but I recognize that feeling of not quite belonging to the high school social scene. What I found refreshing was that Elisa didn’t take the typical teen journey towards acceptance which so often involves sucking up to the popular kids, acting out, or getting a radical makeover. She doesn’t look for external justification for her existence, but instead looks inwardly for it.
There is one scene that stands out especially in my mind for its insightful beauty; one in which Elisa’s emotions are especially fragile because her father is again far away and sort-of-love-interest Theo’s actions are confusing her. She races to an ice covered pond, a place which has become her refuge, a place she feels she belongs. And she thinks about West Side Story and about the song “Somewhere” which is about peace and quiet and open air:
“There’s a place for us,” it starts, the first word becoming the next word, slowly. “There’s a time for us.” Each note as pure as promise.
And she skates under the moon:
That was me, the girl above the pond. Me with my arms thrown out and the night behind me, the night holding me up, for that’s how it’s done. I was the beginning and the end, the poem I had yet to write, transcendent, which is not the same thing, not the same thing in the least, as being invisible. I was what the moon was shining its spotlight on.
“Somewhere” is a song. It is a pond, at night.
I first heard the song “Somewhere” in 8th grade, and I too clung to it, believing the promise that someday I too would find my place. And you know what? I did.
If I could go back in time and give this novel to my 8th grade self, I would. My adult self is certainly in love with it.
Undercover is now available in hardcover and will be released in paperback at the end of May.