Book review: Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron

James Sveck, the protagonist of this novel, reminds me a bit of Holden Caulfield. He’s at the cusp of adulthood (18 years old), and he doesn’t really want to go to college: he finds people his own age to be insufferable.

The book follows his musings in the time just before he is expected to attend Brown University. There isn’t a whole lot of plot, but there’s a whole lot of character. He works for his mother’s failing art gallery and reluctantly sees a therapist at his parents’ insistence, and he does tell us about a few run-ins he’s had with authority.

What struck me the most in the James-Holden comparison is their desire to hold onto the innocence of childhood in some (perhaps misunderstood) way. Holden has that vision of catching children who are about to fall out of the rye field. James has a similar-ish idea. He remembers a series of four paintings, each one about a stage of life (birth, childhood, adulthood, and old age), and he most dreads the painting about adulthood because it is full of terrifying traumas. He wishes instead that he could skip to old age and death, which he believes he desires.

The novel is told in first person point of view through the intelligent voice of James. He uses astute vocabulary and wittiness to capture the reader, but he never moves to the arrogance that could make us dislike him. Indeed, although the story is not heavily plot-based at all (much less so than Catcher in the Rye, in any case), I found myself wanting to read on because I found him so intriguing, if not likeable.

Even though he’s speaking in first person, he is hesitant to reveal everything to us. For instance, he lives in New York City, and the novel takes place in 2003. It isn’t until his therapist asks about it blatantly that we learn James was right across the street on September 11, 2001. He also underplays his sexual confusion throughout.

My one disappointment was with the ending. Things started wrapping up both a little too neatly and too open-ended at the same time. I’m not sure how I would have ended it differently, but it felt sort of like a let-down, though that may have been the point. To be sure, James was making a much bigger deal out of everything than he needed to, so the ending possibly is a clue that he is starting to see that life has other perspectives than the gloomy one he was stuck in.

As someone who does have a tendency to overthink things and to be annoyed by small talk and “pointless” conversation, I could definitely relate to James. He’s what I would be like if I were completely left to spiral into an anti-people oblivion. And I can’t imagine that’s a fun way to live!


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