Book Review: The Giver

The GiverI finally found time over vacation to read The Giver by Lois Lowry. She’s also the author of Number the Stars, one of my all-time favorite YA novels.

The Giver also won the Newberry Award, and I was eager to read it (certainly no small amount of buzz over it, since the release of the movie, which I haven’t yet seen). But overall I’d have to admit that I wish I’d liked the novel more than I did. It didn’t live up to its hype for me. Though the novel is well written and offers a lot of interesting social commentary in the context of an imagined future world, I struggled to get through it. Jonas’s world is certainly not one where I would like to live, and perhaps that’s one reason why I didn’t enjoy the novel. It certainly isn’t a “happy” story.

Here is Publisher’s Weekly summary:

In the “ideal” world into which Jonas was born, everybody has sensibly agreed that well-matched married couples will raise exactly two offspring, one boy and one girl. These children’s adolescent sexual impulses will be stifled with specially prescribed drugs; at age 12 they will receive an appropriate career assignment, sensibly chosen by the community’s Elders. This is a world in which the old live in group homes and are “released”–to great celebration–at the proper time; the few infants who do not develop according to schedule are also “released,” but with no fanfare. Lowry’s development of this civilization is so deft that her readers, like the community’s citizens, will be easily seduced by the chimera of this ordered, pain-free society. Until the time that Jonah begins training for his job assignment–the rigorous and prestigious position of Receiver of Memory–he, too, is a complacent model citizen. But as his near-mystical training progresses, and he is weighed down and enriched with society’s collective memories of a world as stimulating as it was flawed, Jonas grows increasingly aware of the hypocrisy that rules his world. With a storyline that hints at Christian allegory and an eerie futuristic setting, this intriguing novel calls to mind John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. Lowry is once again in top form–raising many questions while answering few, and unwinding a tale fit for the most adventurous readers. Ages 12-14.

I like Lowry’s writing; her books are always well written. But the story was depressing, the characters gave little to like, and the plot lacked a real, impending threat to Jonas’s safety necessary to make it a page-turner. I was never fearful for him. His scary world is revealed by degrees, and at the end the reader discovers shocking truths at the same time Jonas does. The plot, therefore, unfolds by degrees based on discovery but not based on action. I’m hard pressed to think of a single action scene apart from Jonas’s ride on a sled. He has no true villain unless one wants to personify his society as the “bad guy.”

Ultimately this is a story about a futuristic world in which the government controls everything, from feelings to procreation and even the end of one’s life. Though the USA isn’t there yet, the reader can’t help wondering, as he or she turns the pages, what steps would need to happen to take us there. Actually, much has already occurred in our society over the last fifty years to show that Jonas’s world isn’t so far away. The reader can’t help but walk away with this impression.

Spoiler alert: When the Giver reveals to Jonas what a “release” means (in one scene a baby is euthanized by injection), the novel speeds to an awkward ending. Suddenly, for reasons that feel very rushed and undeveloped, Jonas turns his back on his society, even his family, and runs away, fleeing with a baby scheduled to be “released.” One can’t help applauding Jonas for saving the child’s life, but after days of traveling and hoping to find a place of safety, a satisfying ending is nowhere to be found. The book ends with his riding a sled in the snow; this appears to parallel one of the Giver’s memories, which he bestowed on Jonas. I suppose this is a metaphor for freedom, but Lowry refuses to tie up any loose ends, and the story comes to an awkward and unfinished-feeling end. I remember closing the book and thinking, That’s it? But I still have so many questions about Jonas’s story.

Perhaps this questioning, unsettled feeling is Lowry’s intent. I understand that there are three other novels that accompany Jonas’s story, though none of them truly inform the reader of what happens to him. I’m undecided as to whether I’ll read the other novels. On a five-star scale, I’d give this novel a three. I’m glad I read it, but I can’t say it’s one I enjoyed or would pick up again. I wish I could give the novel a stronger endorsement.

What parents need to know: The novel contains no profanity or other inappropriate content. There is a little discussion about the repression of an adolescent’s sexual urges (the society gives Jonas pills to take, which he later rejects). In one scene Jonas remembers a dream that introduced his sexual “stirrings.” Parents may want to check that out. In one scene a baby is euthanized by injection; this may disturb some readers. Parents may want to check out this scene before handing the novel to their kids.

If you’re looking for a YA novel with a more uplifting story and more satisfying ending, you’ll like Lowry’s Number the Stars.

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