There’s a crack, there’s a crack in everything.
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
M.J. Hyland’s How the Light Gets In is the story of Lou Connors, a super-smart 16-year-old from the slums of Sydney who wins a scholarship to partake in a year-long student exchange program to the United States. She’s thrilled at the opportunity to get away from her scummy home and even scummier relatives, predicting she’ll thrive in this new environment, able to build and create a persona closer to what she believes is her authentic self.
Her plan fails, though, when she discovers that even on the other side of the world in a loving household with all of life’s necessities at her fingertips, she’s still not satisfied. Is her host-family, the Hardings, cultivating her outlandish behavior by giving her everything she needs, including a second chance (or two) at redemption, or is Lou Connors simply incapable of being loved?
Lou just can’t seem to fit in with her new family. She succeeds at her new school, but resists any kind of companionship from her host-parents. After a few mishaps, including getting caught smoking in her room, Lou detaches herself more and more from the Hardings, acting up whenever she can until they have little choice but to send her away. She winds up in a hostel for wayward exchange students where she continues to resist the efforts of counselors and other helpful folks to reach out to her, instead choosing to lie about feeling better and more in control of her emotions. A new host-family and even more opportunities thrown her way still fail to elevate Lou out of her poor-me slump and before she knows it, she back at the hostel feeling even more sorry for herself.
The disaffected-teen-on-a-path-of-destruction is a premise so old it’s got spider webs hanging from its spider webs. Hyland’s take on the idea tries to break new ground by having Lou fight her inner demons in a foreign country, but the problem here is not the tiredness of the story but the failure of an apparently intelligent protagonist to endear the reader to her plight due to consistent screw-ups explained away with age-old and predictable excuses like teenage rebelliousness and poor upbringing.
Hyland apparently considers these excuses satisfactory, but instead of shaping Lou, her rebellion directly contrasts with her supposed intelligence. Lou manages an SAT test score, for example, in the top one percent of the nation, yet acts particularly unfazed when she wakes up with her host-brother’s hand down her pants. She leaves sappy notes around the house for her host-parents to find declaring her adoration for them and her desire to be just like them, yet can’t seem to understand their reluctance to nurture her after she steals from them and repeatedly breaks curfew, stumbling in at all hours of the night hyped up on gin and cigarettes. (How exactly she manages to purchase these items so frequently, being significantly underage in the United States, is never explained—in fact, there is very little mentioned at all regarding the differences between Chicago and suburban Sydney, rendering Lou’s displacement little more than a convenient plot device.)
Lou’s fondness for smokes and booze is just one indication Hyland gives that her protagonist is struggling with Repressed Teen Syndrome. Others include her penchant for Gogol and her hatred for the mall, shopping and girly magazines. She never exactly lets on as to what she learns from Russian literature or why she loves gin and cigarettes so much, but, according to Lou, explanation is the last thing she needs:
What kind of moron thinks that there’s an explanation for all human behavior? What kind of fool thinks that perversity can be explained? It’s obvious. I felt like garbage for one reason or another and drank to make myself feel better even though it could ruin my chances of escape. What’s so hard to understand about that?
Nothing, really, if the “one reason or another” were fully explored beyond simply the perils of youth. This explanation is simply not enough to account for why someone so apparently devastatingly self-aware persists in behaving so immaturely. Why does Lou even attempt to reconcile with the Hardings if she knows so well her pattern of destruction? What hope is there when Lou herself knows she’s stuck in an inescapable cycle of abuse?
It’s near impossible to sympathize with Lou as she continually lets herself down by acting so far above everyone around her that she cannot see—or ignores—to what extent she is to blame for her own downfall. She cries victim whenever the system fails her but refuses to let her intelligence lead her to happiness and acceptance. Hyland fails her, too, by wrapping her story up in the neatest (and most preposterous) of packages that manages only to teach Lou that no matter how much of an asshole you are, good things will eventually happen to smart people. If only.