Equal Parts Horror and Fairytale
Anytime I finish a long book, I find myself missing the characters. For days afterwards, I want to go back to the imagined world and learn more about the people who live there. Earlier this year, I tackled Stephen King’s Under the Dome. When it was over, I wanted to check in on Chester’s Mill (or what was left of it), and I had to accept the fact that it was all over.
After completing Stephen Chbosky’s Imaginary Friend, I am experiencing the same sense of loss. The story of seven-year-old Christopher and his mother, and Christopher’s friends Special Ed and the M&M’s (Mike and Matt) tapped into my deepest level of empathy. And at 705 pages, Imaginary Friend gives the reader plenty of time to get to know them. And yet … I still miss them.
Christopher and his mother, Kate, have just moved to Mill Grove, a small town in Philadelphia. Kate is fleeing an abusive relationship. She hopes to settle down – and disappear – so that she and her son can finally establish a long-term home.
Christopher begins seeing and hearing a “nice man,” who lures the boy into the Mission Street Woods. Wary at first, Christopher suspects that the man may be imaginary, and yet he begins to trust him. The nice man is in desperate need of help; he wants Christopher to build a treehouse in the middle of the woods. Otherwise, everyone in Mill Grove will perish on Christmas Day.
There is only one problem: The Hissing Lady. She has kept the nice man trapped in the imaginary world, and now she wants to bring the imaginary and real worlds together. The nice man needs Christopher’s help to prevent that from happening.
Chbosky develops the story at a slow and steady pace. He gives the reader time to know the characters and to become increasingly curious about the town’s past. The slow simmer of horror eventually comes to a full, rolling boil as the story barrels toward Christmas Day.
The novel blends elements of horror and fairytale. Its fable-like qualities underscore what is at stake. Not only Christopher’s safety, but ultimately the entire world. While the story has a clear direction, Chbosky is masterful at hinting at what is to come while maintaining plenty of surprises. At the core of the story are questions about faith, love, and spirituality: Who do you trust. Why do you love the ones that you do. What is our purpose in the world.
Chbosky reminds me of Stephen King, in that he deftly manages a wide cast of characters. He keeps juggling the perspective from character to character, drawing the multiple storylines to its many convergences. There are plenty of cliffhangers, and there are plenty of unexpected discoveries. To summarize more of the story would be to ruin the element of surprise.
My only complaint about Imaginary Friend is that the climax gets long-winded and redundant. Too many times Christopher is on the verge of success, when the adversary pops up out of nowhere. Too many times Christopher is on the verge of utter failure, and an unexpected ally appears. Maybe its superlative fatigue: the sense that the story is building to a phenomenal climax, only to have yet another delay. After a while, I couldn’t see the point in all the racing around.
Despite this critique, the ending is immensely satisfying. I wondered how Chbosky was going to pull it off, and he did not disappoint.
Definitely, an entertaining book. I already know it will be on my Top Ten list at the end of the year.