Like the Red Panda, by Andrea Seigel

Please note that this book reaction was written by Sean Carman.

Like the Red Panda is the kind of book I wouldn’t normally read, which may sound sort of narrow of me, but I can perhaps explain by pointing out that the book chronicles a Princeton-bound disaffected teen in Orange County, California, and her decision to kill herself, whereas I am a fairly well-adjusted 40-year old guy who grew up in Wyoming and attended a state university. Angsty teen fiction about disaffected, privileged suburbia? Like, please?

But Andrea Siegel is one of those writers who could hold you in captivation as she described paint drying on the wall, and from the moment I stumbled across her blog (thanks to a link on this site), I was hooked on her style.

Panda is the first-person account of Stella Parish’s decision to conclude high school by killing herself. The book is Stella’s journal, her suicide note to the world. It would be enough that Seigel is captivating and funny. About Deerfield (“the extreme back end of North Irvine”), where the novel is set, she writes, “The houses feel safe like purified log cabins and the trees loom taller and grow bushier and Deerfield even has a 7-Eleven, which the South wouldn’t be caught dead with. The existence of a 7-Eleven says that someone somewhere got lazy.” But it’s not just that Seigel is funny, or good with words, or knows how to let the writing get out of the way of the story. She’s also a great storyteller. She introduces Stella’s parents, for example, by laying out a pitch perfect scene of her eleventh birthday morning, in which her parents run around acting goofy, their behavior not quite right but you can’t put your finger on why. Finally, Seigel delivers this: “When you’re younger, you’re selfish, and you’re able to believe fully that the world revolves around you. When your parents act like they’re doing coke, you just assume that they’re all jazzed about your turning another year older.”

Panda is filled with such witty observations and beautifully rendered scenes. Not for one moment will you lament an over-described ornament as you wait for the narrative to get going again. Stella is someone you’ll want to spend the day with as you devour Seigel’s first novel.

This, as I said, would be enough, but it’s what Seigel has done with her story that makes Panda such an achievement. Stella is witty, and funny, and has a lot to live for. Her march towards doom, then, presents a narrative problem that demands a brilliant solution: Why has this young woman, obviously bright and with good reason to live, decided to kill herself?

I won’t spoil the answer, but I will say that the solution Seigel has devised is ingenious, and if you catch onto it you’ll want to go back and re-read a number of scenes in the novel. And then there’s this: the novel, in the end, through Seigel’s compelling narrative, and her twist that makes Stella’s decision to commit suicide completely believeable, gives the reader the full experience of the tragedy of teen suicide. To perhaps make this sound not so glib, consider The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ accomplished first novel, also about teen suicide. Eugenides treated his subjects — five sisters who kill themselves over the course of a year — as gothic objects of curiosity. He turned their doomed suburban household into a kind of gothic reliquary, and while this was a neat aesthetic trick, it left the reader unable to empathize with the girls’ decisions to end their lives.

Panda works the opposite magic. You’ll conclude the novel feeling you got to know a young woman who wanted to kill herself, and you’ll understand her decision, and lament it, in other words the full tragedy of her life will come home to you, and hard. Think about how few novels achieve this, how few even honestly attempt it, and you’ll realize that Seigel has done a rare and wonderful thing. Any book that can open up the experience of a young woman like Stella Parish to someone like me (40, blind to his own despair, from the rural, desolate state of Wyoming, did I mention I attended my home state’s egalitarian university?) deserves the widest possible audience.

Finally, Seigel’s work seems to be drawing comparisons to Catcher in the Rye, and several reviews have compared Stella Parish to Holden Caulfield. This was perhaps unavoidable, but it’s unfortunate, really, because the better comparison, I think, is to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Setting aside the obvious reference to the perpetually misunderstood teenager, I’ll conclude with this: Seigel has written a book that, on its own terms, evokes the inevitable, surreal tragedy of Wilde’s own first effort, although in its own way, of course, as Seigel is too sharp to treat her subject to an easy morality tale. The achievement makes Panda not only a fun read, but a small classic for our time, a jewel you will feel fortunate to have found.

Details: Like the Red Panda, by Andrea Seigel, Harvest Books, 288 pp., $13.


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