Aristotle -- but you can call her Aris -- Thibodeau is a 12 1/2 year-old would-be novelist. Under the guidance of her English teacher, school librarian and English-professor mother, she's trying to write a novel in the next 30 days. Once it's sold, she figures she'll be able to make enough money so her mom can quit her job, still take care of her brother with his counseling/medication and find a husband. Aris does have a candidate in mind for her step-dad, but is open to someone else. We get to see precious little of her writing, but we do get to follow her on her journey through the novel writing process, and the family turmoil and drama surrounding it. Actually, as I write that, I have a hard time believing everything that happened outside of her novel took less than 30 days.
There's a strong self-awareness to the narration -- from Aris stopping the action to describe something she's lacking in her novel, and then providing it in the narration to the sections of the book being labeled "Rising Action," "Denouement," etc. Typically, it works, but there were a couple of instances where it seemed forced or overdone.
There are two really strong points to this novel. Sumner can write a sentence that just sings I grabbed three examples from the opening pages -- we get voice, humor, and a crystal-clear idea of the character she's describing (and the one doing the describing):
Diane is forty-three now, short and either curvy or chubby, depending on her mood, with a button nose and blondish bangs that are always falling in her face.
Then he grinned. Papa was old before braces came out, so his teeth are slightly crooked, just enough to make him look like he can tell a good joke.
. . . ladies in the South don't shake hands. Instead, they fold their cool fingers over yours and press ever so gently, leaning in close until you smell breath mints and the eau de toilette behind each ear. Then they say something awful. A few days after Joe [Aris' father] died, Grandma and knelt beside Diane's [Aris' mother] bed and folded her fingers over her hand. After looking into her eyes for a moment, she whispered, "Why didn't he ever have a better job?"
Don't ya just luuuuv Grandma?
The other strong point (maybe half of a point) is her characters -- Aris, Diane, her brother Max -- are great. Diane's student, Charles and his mother are pretty well-drawn. The librarian Ms. Chu wasn't that fleshed out, but she didn't need to be, and she was well drawn enough that you want to see more. These are real people, you could build a book around any of them alone. But the rest -- and I'm only talking about characters that should be well-drawn -- just aren't. Aris' grandparents don't become much more than they were described above. The worst is Aris's choice for her future step-dad, their current volunteer nanny: Penn MacGuffin*. He's an accumulation of ticks, quirks, and clichés, but there's not a person in the middle of that.
The more I think about it, the less I'm sure I like How to Write a Novel as a novel, however frequently clever it is. There are some great scenes, dazzling sentences, charming characters here; it was a pleasure to read. But I'm just not sure there's much there beyond that.
* I'm not going to mention how long it took me to realize what his name meant -- let's just say it was before this moment, and I felt really, really stupid