*This is a review of an uncorrected proof, and quotes/excerpts may therefore differ from the final copy.
There is never a time when I feel happy about reviewing a one-star rating, or even a two-star rating for that matter. Granted, if a book thoroughly upsets me enough, discussing how and why the story disappoints me can feel therapeutic. It’s venting in written form, and although I am pleased and eager to move on, the prospect of beginning a negative review feels daunting. It intimidates me, sometimes more so trying to convince others of a five-star rating. What I would prefer to do is forget the book that left me in such a frustrated state in the first place. Forget and move on to a better story, so why don’t I? Why bother writing a negative review? The answer to that question is a nothing but long, and one that I could turn into a lengthy essay. In short, there are certain books I agree to read and make it my goal to review, and I review honestly.
Although Simon is gay, The Waiting Tree is not a book about being gay. Rather, it focuses on some of life’s unfair and ugly aspects—a few of which stem from Simon’s sexual orientation. Caught with his boyfriend, Stephen, Simon finds himself alone and an outcast in his church community. With Stephen sent away to ‘make-the-gay-go-away’ Waverly Christian Center, Simon fears he’s lost the one person who accepted him without judgment. As his presence hardly seems tolerated, and Simon can’t bring himself to face Stephen’s parents, he stops attending church. These, however, are the least of Simon’s worries.
After his parents died in a car accident, Paul—Simon’s oldest brother—assumes head role in the family. Meanwhile, Simon has dropped out of high school to begin work at Stop ‘n Save to add to the family income. As the Peters household try to cope with new roles and responsibilities, caring after Jude becomes Simon’s ‘second job.’ Mute at birth, Jude is perhaps the most peculiar among the brothers. With a gentle disposition, Jude is an easy target for bullying, yet through his dependent nature, he is all-consuming. Stuck in a town that, by vast majority, will not accept him, there can be nothing better for Simon than to move forward in his life. But how can he when the two people he loves the most need him? No one but Simon knows how to care for Jude, and as the clock ticks, Stephen withers away.
Through circumstance, I can relate to Simon’s situation: putting the needs of another above your own. I have found myself in that same predicament where the one thing I need most is to think of my future, but how can a person carry on like that when someone else needs help? And what does a person do when caring for that someone is preventing, or hindering, the option to move forward? A person might feel guilty or selfish, frustrated by the conditions, or all-caring and devoted. The Waiting Tree, unfortunately, fails to explore not just the answers, but the depth of the situation. Upon reaching the last page, I don’t think I could have felt more bothered. For a minute I sat there, staring, and I may or may not have screamed my frustrations out-loud at the entire book. I shouted, How can it end this way?! and there a frown and bunched eyebrows marred my face. How can I call this book’s ending a conclusion when it feels like nothing is resolved? What an annoyance!
What happens at the end felt more appropriate to occur earlier on, as the events that take place between the first and last pages hardly deserve to be called events. What I find between the covers of The Waiting Tree is stupidity mingled in stagnancy and the dry sort of text that’s mind-numbingly dull. I’ll explain:
Simon faces several issues, and many of these problems pin him down into a daily routine that will never lead to a greener field. This doesn’t mean Simon is super-glued into this monotonous, disconsolate lifestyle—if only he would take action! What Simon opts for instead is nothing, unless you consider lots of wishful inaction progressive. By the time I neared the halfway point in the book, the plot had developed by a shocking zero percent. If Simon doesn’t commentate on the hot weather, he narrates his walk to work, daydreams about Stephen, grouches about his drug-dealing neighbor, or worries over Jude. When a reader works through a story and this is all that the protagonist feels content on doing with his life, I wonder what the point is—if there is, indeed, a point. Why continue reading if Simon invests more in telling the audience what his family eats than fighting back against his worries?
I laughed and gave him a little push into the house. ‘Well, don’t you have more important things to worry about than my shoes?’ I joked.
Once inside, I grabbed eight pieces of bread so that we could each have two sandwiches. I bought green bananas every Monday so they’d be ripe by Friday. Everyone in the house knew not to eat those bananas.
Jude placed the sandwiches on two dinner plates, and I got out drinks. We sat at the kitchen table eating our lunch, Jude finished quickly and went to the sink to wash off his plate.
A violent urge to reach my hands into the pages and pluck Simon out before he could finish another food description pulsed within me, because all I wanted was to slap some sense into him. Yes, I wanted to slap him, and I wanted to slap him hard in the face.
By the time Simon does choose to stop squirming in an anxiety puddle, the story is half over. In the very least I had hoped this course of action would not just move the story forward, but that Simon would begin sorting priorities. Oh, the let-down I felt was tremendous, because nothing comes of it. Simon settles back into a hapless life, and the story drives toward a dead-end once again. The one thing—or person, I should say—that holds Simon back is Jude, but Jude is not the problem. The issue of a Simon-dependent Jude is a result the family’s inability to work together, and this remains one of the weaker points in Lindsay Moynihan’s writing.
While I understand Simon’s reasons for concerning himself over Stephen, he needs to move one step beyond assessing his situation. He needs to face the draw-backs head-on, crash through these road blocks, and pummel on down the street. The question remains, still: how can Simon do anything for himself when he has Jude to look after? Allowing Jude to discover independence to a certain degree, or learn how to function without Simon, is what Moynihan needed to focus on. Only when this aspect of the story found a solution could the other problems find closure, or be addressed.
Although Simon is, at best, unmotivated, and I find the plot stale, these are only part of my problem. When I look at the characters overall, each one comes across as flat and without range. Through first-person narrative, Simon is granted a spectrum of thoughts and emotions that readers can see; albeit, the spectrum is limited. Paul, however, never steps foot outside of short-temperedness. Luke is always the jokester and Tina never moves beyond this troubled, “bad-girl” stereotype. Needless to say: did I feel surprised to discover that no character growth happens? No, but it didn’t stop me from wishing otherwise.
I could say that Simon disappointed me, yet it’s Moynihan’s craft—or lack thereof—that fails to thrive. In terms of characters with quality, Simon has little going for him. What irked me the most, aside from his nearly-absent determination, is how Stephen—or reveries of Stephen—consume large chunks of Simon’s days. At some point or another, I couldn’t help but groan, because he doesn’t seem capable of being in charge of his own self.
Losing Stephen made being stuck in Waynesboro even more of a nightmare. There was nobody I could talk to, much less fool around with. It was just me and my hard-on. But more than that, it felt like someone had ripped me into two pieces and hid the other half. I didn’t know how to be me without Stephen. I’d never had to try.
The feeling I get when I meet people who aren’t self-aware can’t compare to too many things. It’s a trait I seek not only in fictional characters, but in people I meet in real life. It’s simply easier to enjoy another’s company if that person doesn’t need guidance to explore his or her own likes and dislikes. Granted, Stephen was Simon’s guide. However, if Simon could stop thinking of him—or Jude—for five seconds, I would like Simon to discuss getting his GED, applying for college, and moving out on his own. Above all, I wanted to see Simon form a legitimate plan that would help him move on in life. I wanted his situation to improve. But of course, there is Jude to care for.
No one handles the “Jude issue,” least of all Moynihan. What should have been considered is Jude’s well-being, and the well-being of those who care for him. The manner in which Moynihan takes care of Jude and gives Simon his freedom is a cop-out. I can’t think of a better word to describe it, and the circumstance surrounding Jude’s removal feels wrong. Is it fair to sacrifice the weaker person so that the caregiver can go back to his or her life? Is it fair to anyone, even if the dependent individual says it’s okay? These are questions I’ve asked myself before, and I found myself asking them again. It’s not fair and it’s not okay, and things don’t always work out justly in the real world. There is, however, a huge difference between finding another caregiver versus the vulnerable person landing a jail booking.
By writing this book, the author had a good opportunity to explore family dynamics and deal with problems any breathing person can bump into. Unfortunately, Lindsay Moynihan doesn’t grapple with any of the book’s conflicts, because the way issues are handled feels like evasion. It’s the act of skirting around the problems that disappoint me the most. Dry text and fizzed-out characters fail to entertain, but an unresolved and eventless plot nose-dives straight down toward unwelcome depths of disappointment.
Thank you to Netgalley and Amazon Children’s Publishing for providing a free copy of The Waiting Tree in exchange for my honest review.