28.04.10

Book Review: Loving Richard Feynman by Penny Tangey

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:26 pm

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.  Catherine is a science-loving fifteen-year-old.  Richard helped build the atom bomb.  Catherine’s just trying to survive school.

When your life is falling apart around you, is talking to a dead physicist normal?

Catherine thinks so, but it isn’t until her life begins unravelling that she learns who she can really trust.

In Loving Richard Feynman, her debut novel,  Penny Tangey has revealed that she has a gift for touching on the old with enough of the new that it feels completely fresh.  The narrative takes place as a series of letters that Catherine writes to Richard Feynman, self-consciously at first, and eventually completely openly.  Given that letters and diary entries such a well-worn form of telling a story, particularly in YA, this could have gone badly or just blandly, but having one of the greatest physicists the world has ever known as the focus of Catherine’s unrequitable letters works really well; Catherine learns more about Richard Feynman as she learns about herself, and uses his life and times (as told through biographies and Feynman’s autobiography) as a one-way sounding board for her own angst.

Catherine is such an awesome main character.  It’s still unusual in YA to have a female character that is so unabashedly nerdy, witty, smart and brave.  Catherine’s cousin refers to her in one scene as a “box of nerdish delight”, and this is absolutely spot on.  Catherine is smart, headstrong and hilarious, with enough emotional fragility that she’s still easy to relate to; her insistance that she doesn’t care what others think (inspired by Feynman) is more of a mantra than a verifiable fact.  It’s also nice to come across a teenage female protagonist who isn’t  afraid to indentify – loudly – as a feminist.

Catherine’s school life feels very realistic; possibly particularly so to me as, like her, I went to high school in a small Victorian country town, and the party scene in the paddock is all too familiar.  But the travails and trails are well-referenced here without seeming stale or cliche, which is an absolute boon.

As Catherine’s own life begins to change, she leans more heavily on her imagined relationship with Feynman, only to discover, as she learns more about his life, that he is just as human and fallible as the people around her.  Although the letters begin as a way for her to retreat from her life for a moment to make sense of it, she becomes more self-aware about the relationship she imagines and the ideals she is projecting onto Feynman.  It’s a clever in-text critique of the novel’s own structure, and it drives the narrative smoothly to its crisis point.

Loving Richard Feynman should be read by every current and former high school nerd, and by anyone who loves fresh, funny YA fiction with strong female characters.  Penny Tangey is a writer to watch.