YA Pop Fiction
I was surprised by this book. I figured it would be some of kind of Hunger-Games-meets-pro-wrestling deal. And it is, but with far more depth and originality than I anticipated.
One of the book’s strengths is the world-building. It is set in contemporary America, but in an imaginary subculture based on professional gladiatorial contests. Haines even opens the book with a history of the Gladiator Sports Association. Just what I want to do, read a bunch of backstory to open a novel. But the humor of the history keeps you reading. In a strange way, it parallels Jane Austen’s history of England (the ironic one she wrote in her youth). You can tell right away this history is written by someone who knows Glad culture intimately, yet strives to stand outside it and gain some perspective. It’s fond, condemning, and pokes fun of this world. The opening paragraph is priceless. We learn soon after that the history is written by our narrator, Lyn, and fits her perspective beautifully.
Lyn is a “daughter of Seven Gladiators.” Her mother has lost multiple husbands to the death-matches. According to the rulebook, this means if mom loses her current husband, Tommy, she’s maxed out. No more husbands. Not even any dating, or she loses all her pensions and benefits from the Association.
Lyn, as a gladiator’s daughter, also falls under the strictures of the regulations of the Association. She has just turned 18 and is fair game now for the media on the eve of one of Tommy’s last matches. Lyn is looking to attend a normal college to prepare for a mainstream profession, while her mother tries to push her into following her footsteps as a Glad Wife. But Lyn is pushed back into the Glad culture she is trying to leave behind when Tommy loses his death-match. A series of bizarre regulations forces Lyn to marry the gladiator who killed him. Unless she fights the decision.
Girl in the Arena has some dystopian elements. But it’s not fully a dystopia. Glad culture is a highly publicized and powerful subculture in America, but it’s still America. Lyn could leave it all behind if she chose. But that would mean abandoning her grieving and mentally-imbalanced mother. It would mean leaving her 8yo brother. Thad’s condition is never specified, but it’s very possible he’s somewhere on the autism spectrum. And breaking the rules of the Association would mean her family loses their house and benefits.
All the main characters in this book have depth. We see a lot of Tommy before he dies. I am not sure if we would call this family functional or dysfunctional. It’s both. They all have flaws and rub each other the wrong way, but they also all love each and support each other. Two young men also figure highly into Lyn’s life. There’s her best friend, Mark, who has a thing for her but it’s such inconvenient timing. And Uber, the gladiator who killed her stepfather, is an awkward but earnest suitor who—surprise—carries an asthma inhaler. Everyone here is complex, and it’s this complexity that gives the book its surprising depth.
Well, that and the incisive social commentary.
As in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the media and the public’s thirst for entertainment and glamorized violence create the trap for our main characters. We see lives and relationships reduced to TV spots, and the fickle way the public will turn on their favorite and cheer his opponent. But again, this is contemporary America, so the trap is not enforced by government. We hear hints of social media protests and lots of that great American pastime, suing people. Even characters who consider running away from the system—and could—decide to stay. Why? Loyalty to family? Love of fame? Because they want the money? In some ways Girl in the Arena surpasses The Hunger Games as a parallel to American life, because of that extra element of choice. Many people who despise the system of superstars and violent entertainment still buy into it.
The only off-putting thing about the book was the punctuation. Instead of using quotation marks, the author uses dashes at the beginning of paragraphs of dialogue. It took me half the book to get used to it. I am not sure why it was necessary.
Both Haines and Collins have created strong young female protagonists who defy their cultures, protect their families, are forced into a media-fueled faux romance, and have some good fight scenes. Both books seem to speak against violence by showing it at extremes. Both draw on ancient Rome for inspiration. There are other parallels I could outline, but they’d be spoilers, so I won’t. I won’t say which is better—Hunger Games or Girl in the Arena—because the comparisons only go so far. I found Lyn a more likeable and accessible protagonist than Katniss. The tone of this book is funnier. It’s a more intimate picture of family life. It is more a pop novel than an epic, and more a comedy than a tragedy. There is a place for both on our bookshelves.
I give this book 4.25 out of 5 shields.