Monday, October 9

Parent Swap


by Terence Blacker
FSG 2006

The set-up is pure teen fantasy: a 13 year old boy is presented with the opportunity to choose his ideal family, to trade up as it were to the type of family he's never had but is sure he's always wished for. Along the way there are bumps and in the end he realizes there's no place like home. It's the bumps along the way that make the journey interesting.

Danny Bell is the odd kid in the London housing development of White City that just might be smart enough to make it out on his own but certainly benefits from a little unintentional prodding. His dysfunctional family notwithstanding, Danny's golden ticket is that he's the victim of a reality show bent on secretly using him for their own aims. But Danny only pieces it together in bits, wondering why the first family he's placed with is so security conscious, why "news crews" always seem to be showing up when he's on outings. When he finally gets the whole picture he sets out on a course of revenge against the television production company that set him up and gets the semi-happy ending he had been hoping for, though not exactly as he'd planned.

Blacker's pacing takes some getting used to, as Danny's narration in interrupted by drop-ins of interview segments (presumably from the reality show) and from Danny's own top-ten sort of lists. Both the lists and the interviews feel a bit forced and have a tendency to throw off the rhythm of the story despite the narrative clues the inevitably include. The effect is that the reader is one jump ahead of Danny in figuring out what's going on up until the very end when Blacker elects to let the somewhat artificial suspense hang for the big showdown scene.

In the beginning, as I was getting my own footing in the story, I had visions of a teen version of the John Frankenheimer film Seconds, wondering if the narrative would take a dark turn down a road of altered identity and the inability to never see loved ones again. Or even a more darker satirical bent in the direction of A Clockwork Orange. Being set in Britain and dealing with class , that was perhaps more of a hope as I desperately didn't want it to drift down more predictable roads of parent-teen drama.

It's the details that nibble at me. The washed-up rock star dad, the against-type supportive friends, the kind-but-oblivious teacher who sees Danny's potential, the shady deal-maker who sets Danny up with his Parent Swap families (and is producing the TV show), all of whom are two dimensional at best. It's always just below the surface, this threat to dig deeper into the story and deliver rich characters and complexities of emotion.

A serviceable read for kids looking for another take on reality shows and social engineering that feeds into the inevitable displacement teens feel about their families.
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