A new book by Andrew Clements is a book which won't remain long unopened in my house, and this one I snapped up in one short afternoon. THINGS THAT ARE is Clements's third book in his YA series (after Things Not Seen and Things Hoped For) and reintroduces us to a world inhabited by invisible people. It's certainly a cool sci-fi concept, but this series is made even more captivating by the author's sensitive portrayal of his lead characters. Andrew Clements, a school teacher for many years, is mainly a writer of stories targeted for middle grade children, and he's quite wonderful at it. The THINGS... series is his stab at reaching a teen audience and, naturally, he emphatically succeeds. The caveat to all this, of course, is that his readership actually spans from those in childhood to those like me, who are this much closer to dotage. Pretty much anyone, however old, is susceptible to being ensnared by Andrew Clements' warm and perceptive brand of storytelling.
THINGS THAT ARE focuses squarely on Alicia Van Dorn, the teenaged blind girl so memorably featured in THINGS NOT SEEN, the first book in the series. In that book, Alicia proved to be as important a character as the main protagonist, Bobby Phillips. Her heartfelt letter to Bobby at the end of THINGS NOT SEEN is one of the best, most moving parts of that book. THINGS THAT ARE tracks two days in the lives of Alicia and Bobby. It begins shortly after the events in THINGS HOPED FOR, as Alicia awaits Bobby's return from his college auditions in New York (Bobby's a musician).
Firstly, I admit to Alicia being my favorite character in this bunch of books. I admire her courage and fierce independence, and how she always strives to live life as fully as she can, despite her blindness. THINGS THAT ARE probes her feelings for Bobby and the first brief chapter opens with her determining to talk out their relationship with him, once he arrives. But the mushy stuff is rapidly put on the backburner as William, the invisible fugitive from THINGS HOPED FOR, shows up and has a disturbing conversation with Alicia. Not too long after, Alicia and her parents are visited at home by FBI agents. Then there are Alicia and Bobby's fathers, who are up to their necks in covert lab experiments...
At 167 pages, this is yet another excellent read by a guy who knows how to write. Again, the characters come to life. With Alicia narrating in first person, we get to know her even better. Andrew Clements goes into good detail about how Alicia copes with her blindness, the constant battle she wages to remain positive and keep pressing on. She receives invaluable help from her sweet-natured guide dog Gertie. It's awesome, as well, to see Bobby, who again displays his resourcefulness and talent for mimicry. There's not too much that's off-kilter with this book, but I guess if there were something which nagged at me, it's that Alicia's poetry and Bobby's music aren't much in evidence here. This is a bit disappointing because poetry and music are so much an integral part of Alicia and Bobby's respective makeups. There's also a deus ex machina element which enters the picture later in the book. It didn't put me off, but it did make me think: "That's a bit of a lucky thing there."
One of the things I enjoy about Clements' writing is that he takes these unexpected paths. One character from THINGS HOPED FOR does a 180 in terms of how that character's perceived. Trust is a big theme in THINGS THAT ARE, and how this book ends hinges largely on a crucial decision which Alicia makes, a decision which if left to Bobby would have marked a different resolution to the story. THINGS THAT ARE isn't much in the action-adventure department, so readers expecting bang-out suspense will be disappointed. This isn't that kind of a book. Oh, there's an aura of peril and tension here, and several anxious moments. But Clements doesn't much invest in epic storytelling. What he excels in is breathing life into those little moments, which then become signature moments. Which is why you grow to care so much for his characters.
I get the feeling that this isn't the last entry in the series, not with how some things are left unresolved (mainly the FBI subplot). This is fine with me. I can't wait for the next one. I think it's being titled THINGS THAT ARE TAKING WAY TOO LONG FOR ANDREW CLEMENTS TO WRITE. But that could be my impatience talking.