105 Ways to Give a Book

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To YouSomeday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, by Peter Cameron, is the kind of book that I often don’t review because I can’t do it justice. I’ve skipped several of my favorite books over the last two years for this reason. But today, I’m taking a new approach and using a minimal description and some paragraphs from the book itself, and that’s going to have to do.

James has been accepted by Brown University, but isn’t sure that he wants to go to college. He’d rather read to educate himself — maybe in a nice house in the Midwest — than spend time with his peers. For now, he works in a boring job at his mother’s art gallery in Manhattan and deals with his fractured family.

I have to say nothing much happens in this book. It’s all about self-discovery and coming of age. Even James’s attraction to his mother’s assistant John is restrained and ambivalent. But I think that the lack of huge external conflicts makes it feel more real and raw. The only flaw is that the book doesn’t leave you much to grasp onto when it’s over. It’s a little forgettable in a way. There are some really well-written passages that explain James’ feeling of isolation and loss. Here are three of them.
“No,” I said. “You’re right. It’s true.”

“What’s true?” my mother asked.

“I am disturbed,” I said. I thought about what the word meant, what it really means to be disturbed, like how a pond is disturbed when you throw a rock into it or how you disturb the peace. Or how you can be disturbed by a book or movie or the burning rain forest or the melting ice caps. Or the war in Iraq. It was one of those moments when you feel you have never heard the word before, and you cannot believe it means what it means, and you think how did this word come to mean that? It seemed like a bell or something, shining and pure, disturbed, disturbed, disturbed, I could hear it pealing with its true meaning, and I said, as if I had just realized it, “I am disturbed.”

...even if you had to sit at a table with someone, they didn’t expect you to say anything besides good morning, and that I could handle. I wish the whole day were like breakfast, when people are still connected to their dreams, focused inward, and not yet ready to engage with the world around them. I realized this is how I am all day; for me, unlike other people, there doesn’t come a moment after a cup of coffee or a shower or whatever when I suddenly feel alive and awake and connected to the world. If it were always breakfast, I would be fine.

[After telling his psychiatrist about a woman who had died on 9/11 and that no one knew she was dead for a while.]

I knew she knew why I was thinking about that woman — I was thinking about my own tendencies toward aloneness and I thought I could end up like that woman... but alone with a life that didn’t touch or overlap with anyone else’s, a sort of hermetically sealed life. I knew Dr. Adler knew I thought this and just wanted me to say it to express myself, because she thought that by articulating those thoughts I might transcend or purge myself of them — but what she didn’t know was that the story of the woman who disappeared like that didn’t make me sad, I didn’t think it was tragic that she left the world without effect. I thought it was beautiful. To die like that, to disappear without a trace, to sink without disturbing the surface of the water, not even a telltale bubble rising to the surface, like sneaking out of a party so no one notices you’re gone.
The book isn’t all misery and angst. There’s humor, too. Overall, an interesting and entertaining book that will leave you wanting more — even if you can’t exactly remember why.


Brian Farrey said...

I feel the same way. I've been recommending this book to anyone who'll listen but it's been so hard to sum up how fantastic it is.

Anonymous said...

I've been wanting to read this one for the longest time now.

Lisa Yee said...

I've heard a lot about this book. I think it's time to buy it.

Unknown said...

I have to read this one for our Great Books for Young People program and I have been putting it off because it's just not "my kind of book," i.e. no pictures, no airships, no snakes.

It sounds wonderful but I STILL don't want to read it. I read YA and J literature partly for fun but mostly so I can hand the right book to the right kid.

Is it a cop-out on my part to suggest that the right kid for this book is not the kid that will ask for (or accept) help from the librarian in choosing a book?

I should just read the damn thing, shouldn't I? Sigh.

ElsKushner said...

I LOVED this book; for me, much of the appeal is in the narrator's voice. He's mordantly funny, wry, and self-aware, but (not to give too much away) as it turns out, not as self-aware as he (or we) think. Also, his grandmother is a wonderful character. Actually, all of them are, even the ones who don't get much screen time, like the sister and her boyfriend.

And my sympathies on the being unable to review your favorite books-- with the ones I love most, generally all I want to say is "It's so great! Just read it!" and somehow that never ends up being as convincing as I want it to.

Tasha said...

I really enjoyed reading this book. James' life and decisions might not be something that every reader can relate to, but something about his sadness and confusion definitely attracted me.