Published by The Free Press
Review by W. R. Greer
I'll admit at the beginning of this review that I was looking forward to reading The Boy on the Bus by Deborah Schupack. It's based on an intriguing premise -- a mother meets the school bus one day and the boy on the bus doesn't quite look and act like her son. The novel also takes place in rural Vermont, my environs, and I was looking forward to sharing the familiar aspects of a story set in my backyard. Unfortunately, both the story and the setting eventually disappointed me.
Meg Landry is the mother meeting the bus and is expecting her son Charlie to be getting off after school. Something is wrong, though, and even Sandy, the bus driver, is aware of it. While the boy on the bus looks mostly like Charlie, it doesn't seem to be him. Or is it? Meg is scared, reluctant to challenge or test the boy. After all, what mother wouldn't know her son? The boy doesn't claim not to be Charlie, but he appears oddly out of place. A crowd gathers and the county sheriff arrives, and Meg finally coaxes the boy off the bus and into the house.
The boy who got on the bus in the morning, Charlie, was a frail, asthmatic boy with bad skin pallor and a fear of life instilled into him by his mother. Or at least that's the Charlie that Meg had firmly fixed in her mind. The new Charlie is healthy, apparently cured of his asthma, has a hearty appetite and is more defiant. Meg's partner, Jeff, is summoned home from Toronto where he'd been working all winter. Their teenage daughter, Katie, is brought home from boarding school so the family can be together during this "crisis." Jeff is unsure whether the boy is Charlie, but as Meg wonders, how well can a father who spends most of his time away from home really know his son? Katie, who's always been jealous of the attention Charlie gets because of his health problems, likes the new Charlie who isn't afraid to do or say something shocking.
This is Meg's story, or lack thereof, as the case may be. Meg Landry is one of the most unlikable female characters I've encountered in a work of fiction. She's perfected the art of martyrdom, victimhood, and passive-aggressiveness. In doing so, she's pushed away everyone close in her life. Jeff, an architect, works on projects that take him farther and longer away from home. When he is home, he doesn't share Meg's bed. Katie is the defiant and rebellious child determined to make her break from home as early as possible. The one member of the family Meg could control was Charlie. She could pour all her neuroses into him, baby him because of his illness, keep him home from school and teach him to live with a panic button next to his bed in case of an asthma attack. While the pediatrician urges her to let Charlie live as close to a normal life as possible, Meg tries to keep him cocooned in the house with her.
The new Charlie, though, is much more like a normal child. What happened to her weak and frail son? Or is Meg just remembering a Charlie she wishes was still there? Meg continually tests Charlie, not directly, but with references to things they shared in the past to see if this boy remembers them. His recollections, however, are never quite precise. Although, as Meg is aware, that this could be just the child's perspective of the past as opposed to her own memory. While I'm sure this is intended to shed light on different perspectives of a shared past and highlight Meg's inability to tackle any problem head on, it eventually comes across more like a Saturday Night Live "It's Pat" routine. By asking questions where an ambiguous response provides no more clarity to the confusion, the definitive answer is never obtained. Although in Meg's dysfunctional mind and family, this is the preferred situation.
The story is set in rural Vermont during mud season, an actual season here where dirt roads are an adventure and at times impassable. The melting snow and rain saturates the ground, but the frost layer prevents the water from percolating through the soil. The result is mud, lots of it, and cars on dirt roads either jerk from side to side in deep ruts or travel on a shifting surface that's not quite either solid or liquid. It's an apt metaphor for Meg's life and mental state, that unhappy stage where she is most comfortable. It's also a metaphor that isn't delivered subtly, but hammered home many times throughout the novel. Perhaps because I live in rural Vermont, the descriptions of Vermont in this book never rang completely true to me. I was never able to totally immerse myself in the setting for this book, whether the roads, woods, and small town life depicted, or Meg's family. Mud season eventually gives away to spring, that season of rebirth and new starts. Meg, and this novel, never get out of mud season.
Two minor nits I must make as a Vermonter. First, there is no Highway Patrol here. Second, it is not the least populous state.
The Boy on the Bus is a short novel, but it reads like a one-note song that never gets better. There a few bright spots in the novel, exposition that shows what brings a family together or pushes it apart. Deborah Schupack has accurately depicted Meg's neuroses and dysfunctional family behavior. There's no delivery on the psychological premise that begins this novel, though. Meg never grows as a character and there's no revelation about the truths of life through her. This novel presents an idea and repeatedly stares at it from the same angle. When the story is over, we know no more than when it began.
What is frustrating is that this novel was full of potential, and Deborah Schupack demonstrates an obvious literary talent. Yet I finished the book very dissatisfied with it. Not only has Meg not learned anything new, but neither had I.
Copyright © 2003 reviewsofbooks.com