Book Review: Struck By Lightning – Chris Colfer

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I feel I should confess something before I go any further: young adult fiction is not really my genre, purely based on taste of course; there’s no denying the sheer creative genius that produces great works of YA fiction like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or Noughts and Crosses. Yet, I felt an obligation, as a fan of Glee and of the talented Chris Colfer, to at least find out whether the guy can write.

Without wanting to sound too cheesy, my feelings about this book were pretty much summed up in the one bit of the book that made me get the tissues out:

“Lightning is a negative charge that comes from the friction that clouds carry. And since opposites attract, I would like to think that he was so positive the moment that he died, so happy, he pulled that bolt right out of the sky.”

This might be a bit obscure, but hear me out: Chris Colfer (Kurt in Glee)’s debut isn’t perfect. It’s witty and sarcastic, a little rough around the edges, but it’s this combination which makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read that you can really sink your teeth into. The book has so many positives that it pulls those negatives right out of thought.

Throughout the novel, Carson Philips is subjected to the stereotypical hierarchy of high school (a la Glee minus the slushies) – surrounded by jocks, cheerleaders, Yearbook teams, Carson stands out like a sore thumb in his ambitions for something more than the title of Prom King. With dreams of being the youngest editor of the New Yorker, he is determined to get into Northwestern University. The hilariously inept careers guidance counsellor recommends starting a literary magazine within the school (as well as filling out a form so she can get points towards a Clovis High plastic cup) – but in a school where Reader’s Digest might be mistaken for a new brand of gastro-friendly yoghurt, you can imagine it’s not exactly an easy ride, especially when it involves blackmail.

Chris Colfer as Carson Philips in the film.
Chris Colfer as Carson Philips in the film.

Struck By Lightning is the diary of Carson Phillips, a personification of that voice in your head that rolls its eyes at the stupidity of modern day society and he’s brilliant. Easily the absolute highlight of the book is his sarcastic, but so on-point it’s painful in it’s accuracy voice. Watch any interview with Chris Colfer, or even watch his character Kurt on Glee if you can bear it (as a fan, I’m justified in saying that!), and the razor-sharp wit of Carson is there. In fact, it’s there so much that at some times, the novel can feel almost as if Colfer has put too much of himself into the book (the fact that he was also the star of his own screenplay, doesn’t exactly help). That said, however, Colfer uses Carson’s touch of arrogance in his intellectually superiority over his classmates to not only shape his character into a rougher and therefore more realistic figure, but also to really milk the main twist in the plot.

The aforementioned twist isn’t exactly unpredictable but it certainly strikes a strange chord in the heart. Carson’s death, and its cause, are laid out before we even begin: Struck By Lightning. I say ‘strange’ because Carson never made the iron strongholds on my heart that I expected him to – surely an aspiring teenage writer, stuck in school, in a family who don’t understand him would be like looking into a mirror, surely his character would latch onto my heart and cling to my empathy. And funnily enough, he didn’t. This appears as a criticism right now, and to me, for the most part of the novel it became one. That was until the end. Though Colfer’s style isn’t the Austen or Woolf-like prose I’m usually immersed in, he can write a damn good character. This dawned on me as I, surprising even myself, began to tear up at his death. If his arrogance had annoyed me so much, why was I so upset? Well, I was asking myself the same question in Screen 4 at the cinema, as I finished off the novel during the trailers; I came to this conclusion. Carson’s whole persona was about not being perfect – he himself could see his own dissatisfaction with not only his circumstances but also his own attitude to life. But rather than viewing myself as Carson, and (slightly narcissistically) despairing over his death as a symbol of the unfairness of life, I felt as if I’d lost a friend. For me, Carson became a character like that friend you have who, although not exactly a BFF, has the same viewpoint on life as you, which ultimately isn’t a criticism at all – it’s a strikingly touching creation.

My copy of Struck By Lightning, signed by Chris Colfer at Bluewater Waterstone's on 16th June 2013
My copy of Struck By Lightning, signed by Chris Colfer at Bluewater Waterstone’s on 16th June 2013

Whilst I maintain that the high school character checklist of jocks, nerds, cheerleaders etc, etc, is overused and not really creatively played upon in the book to the extent I feel it could have been, I did enjoy the lovely touch of the Clover High Literary Magazine supplement in the book, so that we as readers could see the entries of each blackmailee. Any piece of writing is a wide open door into someone’s character and I think that by seeing the entries, a much more rounded view of each otherwise ‘stock’ character could be seen which really makes this book different from your traditional high school setup.

All in all, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would – Colfer’s natural cleverness of wit really shone through in the book, and it balanced just enough inventiveness what with the blackmailing plot, with the inescapable plot rut of ‘misunderstood teenager’ that the whole novel comes together, a bit like Carson. Sharp, funny, but not perfect, and that’s the whole point.

On a related aside, I fully recommend watching the film with the gifted Colfer as well as the hilarious Rebel Wilson.

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