The short vignettes that author Christine Schutt uses to tell her story are not adequate for constructing deep and memorable characters. There is so little devoted to each character that no one person emerges as a protagonist and the bildungsroman aspect of the novel must be considered collectively, not individually. Though the novel focuses on the coming of age of teenage girls, none of Shutt’s characters are as deep as other literary teenage girls such as Sara Louise Bradshaw in Jacob Have I Loved, Paloma Josse in Elegance of the Hedgehog or any of Miss Brodie’s girls. Even Astra Dell, whose struggle with cancer permeates the entire novel, cannot be considered a fully-developed character because for three-fourths of the novel, she is sleeping in her hospital bed and the other characters are reacting to her, not with her. Shutt's characters are more symbolic than human, each offering the reader a synopsis rather than a fully developed character.
Astra Dell is the “pale” senior girl at Siddons School who has cancer. Astra is a beautiful, red-headed dancer who is part of the in-crowd that also consists of Suki Morton, Kittie Johnson, Alex Decrow, Carlotta Forestal, and Lisa Van de Ven. Astra has a rare form of cancer for which there is no cure. Astra’s mother died a few years ago in a freak car accident and Astra’s attorney father is having a difficult time coping with his only daughter’s illness. Astra suffers stoically, however, and even in her illness, she befriends the girl that nobody likes, Marlene Kovack. Astra fights her silent battle with cancer as friends, relatives, parents, and teachers come in and out of her hospital room. Right before graduation, Astra miraculously responds to her painful treatment, which includes having metal rods sewn into her arms, and goes into remission. She will be able to graduate with her class after she finishes some last minute assignments. She is an inspiration to the Siddons School community when she shows up to watch the final dance performance with her gratefully relieved father.
Suki Morton is a very wealthy, naturally thin student at Siddons School. She is a member of the in-crowd and best friends with Alex Decrow. Alex and Suki are such good friends that they are almost one character. Their vignettes are all entitled Suki and Alex, reminiscent of “Samneric” in Lord of the Flies. Suki’s parents are the “soup company” heirs, so rich that their generous donations assure Suki a place at Brown, her first-choice college. Suki is a self-centered girl who complains that Astra’s unexpected recovery has taken the punch out of the graduation video that Alex has been working on all year long.
Alex Decrow is a very wealthy, naturally thin student at Siddons School who is best friends with Suki. She is in charge of the senior video. She annoys all the other Siddons girls by constantly shoving her camera in their faces, and sometimes under their skirts. Marlene believes that Alex is intent on catching the girls in candid moments because she purposely wants “everyone to look ugly” in the video. Alex smokes like a fiend yet she is given the prize for “most improvement in physical education.” She prides herself on having pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, explaining that her prize was the result of “mostly attitude.”
Carlotta Forestal (“Car” for short) is a student at Siddons School who has a wealthy father and a super-thin sophisticated mother. Car has been best friends with Astra Dell since nursery school. Astra has been a stabilizing influence in Car’s life and when Astra becomes ill, Car cannot deal with it. She is coping with severe family issues. Her parents are divorced, her father has declared himself gay, and he thinks Car is fat. Even worse, he drinks, and when he drinks, he makes sexual advances towards Car. Car has an eating disorder. Her mother is a critical neurotic with her own eating disorder. Car is a gifted writer whose poems and essays are cathartic for her. She writes morbid existential letters to Astra. When Astra goes into remission, she and Car resume the deep friendship they had before Astra became ill.
Kitty Johnson is a student at Siddons School, a member of the in-crowd. Her parents are absent, traveling the world, meeting European royalty. They have expensive fights that “end with new jewels.” Kitty is a conscientious student who does not spend hours on the phone each night. She does her homework. She is smitten with her advisor, Mr. O’Brien, and imagines she is in love with him at the beginning of her senior year. They sit together in the cafeteria, tête-a-tête, and the other girls believe their behavior is scandalous. Kitty grows increasingly uncomfortable and guilty. She has migraines. By the end of the novel, she tells her friends that she is not going to take Mr. O’Brien’s easy elective course second semester and signs up for a more difficult class even though second semester senior year is supposed to be a cake-walk.
(The entire section is 2080 words.)