Square Pegs and Southern Inhospitality in Melanie Sumner's 'How to Write a Novel'

This is a charming and touching reflection on family, belonging, and walking the shaky line between childhood and adulthood.

How to Write a Novel

Publisher: Vintage Contemporaries Original
Length: 304 pages
Author: Melanie Sumner
Price: $12.30
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-08

Melanie Sumner's fourth novel has an intriguing and potentially misleading title. How to Write a Novel isn't a writing manual. Instead, it's a clever narrative technique Sumner uses to tell the story of an eccentric family through the eyes of her protagonist, 12-year-old Aristotle "Aris" Thibodeau.

After receiving a writing handbook titled Write a Novel in Thirty Days! as a birthday gift from her mother, Aris, an aspiring novelist, resolves to get her first novel underway. Finding inspiration isn't difficult. Her frazzled English professor mother, Diane (whom Aris refers to by first name throughout the book) and her lovably peculiar eight-year-old brother Max provide the perfect material for a debut novel.

Their circumstances as a family are far from ordinary and provide the ideal backdrop for Aris's memoirs. After the tragic death of her father when she was just four, Aris and her family relocated from the wilds of Alaska to conservative Kanuga, Georgia, to be closer to her maternal grandparents.

Aris misses her father and believes she is visited by his spirit in the form of fireflies and, in the house, in the form of light bulbs that burn themselves out. Despite her adoration for her father, Aris longs to see Diane married, believing it would not only lift her mother's often-downtrodden spirits, but would also finally give her little family a solid sense of security. The closest thing they have to this arrangement is Penn, their “PMI“ (Positive Male Influence) – an AA member friend of Diane's who visits frequently to babysit and help fix things around the house.

By writing the novel, Aris believes she will save her family, or as she puts it, “I am writing a novel to circumvent the bother and expense of therapy, to make money so Diane can retire, Max can go to camp, and I can just chill." She is careful to add, “in case things don't work out with Dianne and Penn – maybe someone else will notice her."

It's the absence of a father figure in the family that underlies a lot of the story. Aris is constantly taking the temperature of Diane and Penn's often-platonic relationship. Sadly, throughout much of the book, she acts as an adult, co-parenting her little brother and frequently consoling Diane. If Penn were to become a permanent part of the household, the possibility of Aris experiencing a normal childhood would be more likely. While Aris never explicitly has this epiphany, it is an unspoken hardship for her.

The story focuses on finding your place in a group, even in the most unlikely places. Aris, Diane, Max, and Penn are eccentric personalities navigating life in a small conservative town. Their refusal to change who they are in the eyes of the religious uptight public of Kanuga gives them added depth and integrity. Readers will root for Diane as she helps her favorite student, Charles, write a statement of defense after being apprehended for driving 63 miles an hour in a 50 mile an hour zone. As Diane observes, Charles is guilty of nothing more than being a black man driving a BMW in Kanuga.

How to Write a Novel reminds its readers of how teenagers communicate in the 21st century. The novel is peppered with Aris's texts to her friends as well as her Facebook status. As if she is aware that adults are reading the book, she includes footnotes, many of which explain the abbreviations used in the texts like “NJJS“ (not judging, just saying) and that “emo“ is short for emotional.

In spite of the tween lingo, the story is skillfully written and filled with wise reflections. Some might find it hard to believe it could be written by a twelve year old. However, it's pointed out that Aris is advanced for her age. She and her mother listen to Bach and discuss literature, and it's mentioned that she ranks in the top one percent in the nation on standardized test scores. Additionally, Sumner adds in the prologue that the author could be lying about her age.

Whatever the case, Aris's narrative voice is entertaining and humorous. Her tween observations mixed with her wry and often adult-like observations are reminiscent of Scout's narrative voice in To Kill a Mockingbird. Both possess the same precocious honesty and nascent maturity expressed by a girl coming of age. In How to Write a Novel, the turning point comes when Aris reads her mother's journals and learns a disturbing secret about her father's past. She also learns that her mother is a lot deeper than she had ever imagined. The journals reveal that she suffered post partum depression and considered suicide after giving birth to Max. In the space of a half a page, Sumner perfectly captures that moment when we discover our parents are more human than we would ever like to truly know.

The book will fit comfortably in the hand of a young person, but just as comfortably in the hand of an adult. At its weakest, the prose can come off as a bit precious, but at its strongest, the story is an uplifting account of a girl standing on the precipice of adulthood while finding her place in an often cruel yet remarkable world.


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