This week I read Solitaire by Alice Oseman, a book that I’ve been talking about for ages but that I didn’t actually buy until last week. I want to say that it’s a shame that I waited so long before reading this but to make myself feel a little bit better about being so late to the party, instead I’m going to say that good things come to those who wait. I loved Solitaire.
Solitaire is about Tori Spring a 16 year old Sixth Form student who’s struggling with how things have changed. Last year Tori had friends, her brother was well and she was successful at school but since starting back after Christmas, things have become different. Now there’s Solitaire and Michael Holden, two new and confusing parts of Tori’s life. Alice says that Solitaire came about because, ‘I wanted female-led coming-of-age novel in the style of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. So I decided to write it.’
What I liked most about Solitaire is Alice’s depiction of teenage life because every aspect of Tori’s life resonated with me. So often YA novels present the reader with unrealistic teenage life that’s too exciting or too dramatic or too ridiculous but Solitaire’s main character is interesting by just being normal. It’s evident that Alice wrote Solitaire in the summer holiday between Year 12 and Year 13 because the Sixth Form experience described is so realistic that it was such a joy to read. I found myself smiling for a lot of the time that I was reading this because I was reminded of little everyday things that I’d forgotten about but that were a massive part of my Sixth Form life. For anyone who’s been to an English secondary school Sixth Form, this will be make you feel all warm and happy inside because it’s such a perfect presentation of that experience.
Much of the nostalgia that I felt came from the characters’ dialogue. In other books that I’ve read, I’ve commented on how the way that the teenagers talk sounds realistic but with Solitaire it was what the characters were talking about that made it so special. Right at the beginning of the book Tori’s friends are discussing Harry Potter fanfic and later on Tori and her 15 year old brother Charlie are debating which character they would be from The Big Bang Theory. This dialogue could so easily have been cut out and the plot would have continued just fine, but it’s the inclusion of this normal conversation that makes Solitaire not only feel real, but also feel familiar.
I think that Alice did an amazing job of creating characters that behave in a way that is recognisable. I imagine it’s quite easy to look back at your teenage years and remember the parties, the nights out, the drinking and constant busyness when in reality being a teenager is actually quite boring- I know there are many people much more interesting than me, but even when I think back to Year 12 I remember parties and days out and have seemingly completely forgotten about the 99% of my time that I spent binge watched Gavin and Stacey whilst playing on The Sims. Solitaire portrays a teenage existence that I can relate to, a reality that sees Tori spending most of her time on Tumblr (Tori has her own blog!) with a diet lemonade in her hand. It’s this reality that also sees Tori feeling utterly alone and desperately unhappy.
Mental illness plays a large role in Solitaire, much of which was inspired by Alice’s time on Tumblr. Mental illness is so prevalent among teenagers but it’s so often dismissed as being teenage grumpiness. Alice has managed to present these issues gently and sensitively without diluting their seriousness which I think is really important. I asked Alice if she wrote Tori as having depression or if her unhappiness was as a result of circumstance to which she replied, ‘Certainly when I started writing it, I just imagined that she was very unhappy, for a whole variety of small reasons. However as the book progressed and she got worse, I began to see that what she was displaying was actually depression. In the original drafts, this was a lot more obvious – the suicidal themes were a lot greater.’
As Alice suggests when she says that the suicidal themes in the first drafts were much stronger, what we’re presented with in the finished version of Solitaire is Tori’s unhappiness about living but unwillingness to attempt suicide- she’s stuck in a limbo of not caring whether she’s alive or not. As someone who has suffered with depression, I applaud Alice on her portrayal these feelings.
Tumblr also helped Alice to create Tori’s brother, Charlie, who suffers with an eating disorder, OCD and self-harms: ‘I learnt lots about mental health disorders from my time on Tumblr – it was always spoken about very frankly and often without romanticism, and I learnt a lot about how serious mental illnesses are. But at the same time, on Tumblr there WAS a lot of romanticising of mental illness, and it frustrated me a lot – so I wrote Charlie’s illness in there because I wanted people to understand that mental illness isn’t beautiful or a ‘kiss your scars’ type scenario, it’s a horrible, devastating illness, just like a physical disease.’
I think that Charlie’s character was important in so many ways with both his mental health problem and his sexuality breaking down preconceptions beautifully. During Friday’s #ukyachat (which is run by Lucy- Queen of Contemporary) Alice said, ‘i think already out confident LGBT chars are v important to act as role models, esp for those struggling w/ their sexuality… that’s what i tried to do with solitaire anyway’ – I think that she did a wonderful job of presenting Charlie and his boyfriend Nick as a normal teenage couple, without their sexuality being the focal point.
I could go on and on about how fantastic Solitaire is but really it’s probably better for you to read it yourself. Despite many of the themes being dark, Solitaire is really funny and such an enjoyable read. Go forth and immerse yourself into Alice’s Solitaire world- there is so much extra Solitairey stuff for you to enjoy once you’ve read this, and I especially recommend the 5 Days of Solitaire which are 6 (there’s a bonus one!) mini-stories set in the days up to Christmas, with each focussing on one of the characters from the book. Amazing writing and Christmas fun, what’s not to love? Also, on a completely separate note I think that Solitaire could make an incredible film!
Gigantic thank you to Alice for answering all of my many (many) questions!