When I worked the reference desk at a public library, I had my finger on the pulse of the publishing industry. I knew every upcoming release and what literary trends were coming and going. Now I’m an archivist and research librarian and the only profession-related things I read reviews on are archival storage containers (acrylic document storage case versus polypropylene document case… what’s a girl to choose?) So it’s understandable that I missed this hot new trend of “New Adult” that’s supposedly sweeping the book-reading nation.
According to Wikipedia, “New Adult (NA) fiction is a developing genre of fiction with protagonists in the 18-25 age bracket. The term was first coined by St. Martin’s Press in 2009 when they held a special call for “…fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult – a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.” New Adult fiction tends to focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices.” Another article lumped in basically all forms of media that involve a woman 14-27 into the category of New Adult, everything from Pride and Prejudice to Girls to Twilight (aka the bane of my existence). At first I was all ummm, and then I was like dude, and then I was all nuh uh, man. I mean come on. Is this what we’re doing now, creating completely meaningless subgenres within other subgenres for marketing purposes and then retconning them into validity? Is New Adult even remotely necessary? If The Registry is any indication, then no.
In Stoker’s dystopian America, men must complete military service before being eligible for a bride, while women are bred as Stepford wives and sold for their dowry to the highest bidder. The reasons aren’t explained in any way that makes sense, something about a Great War and governmental terrorism and whatnot, but just go with it.
The Registry is the story of Mia, a freshly minted 18-year-old, and her fight against her impending marriage. After witnessing her parents turn her runaway sister back over to an abusive husband who then kills her, Mia resolves to remain unmarried. She discovers an article in her dead sister’s possessions that shatters her world view and pushes her into fleeing the safety of the only life she’s known in hopes of freedom across the border. She half-assedly blackmails her father’s farmhand and pre-enlistee, Andrew, into playing Sacajawea to her Lewis. Filling in the Clarke role is Whitney, a dull, uninspired girl and Mia’s BFF who tags along for reasons that never become entirely clear except that Stoker needed a chaperone to keep Andrew and Mia from pawing all over each other.
Mia, Andrew, and Whitney meet a bunch of randos, all of whom are various levels of helpful but most of whom are about as complex as the tertiary characters in a videogame who turn up to give the hero a new clue about their quest. Unbeknownst to Mia, her fiancé, Grant, marries his absentee bride just so he can do unspeakable things to her later without having to worry about dear old dad. Grant is a sadistic sonofabitch who likes pushing people out of helicopters, beating women, and generally just being a dick. He’s this close to twirling his moustache and cackling maniacally while standing over a helpless maiden tied to the railroad tracks.
Ok, that’s twice now I’ve snubbed The Registry, but it’s not really the particular book that irritates me, but rather the subgenre it’s playing into. The Registry was a lot like The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill— full of grand ideas and thrilling enough while you’re reading it, but once you put it down reality smacks you upside the head and the whole thing falls apart. I relished it during the act of reading, but thinking about it afterward ruined the experience. I am the 8,923rd person to point this out, but the book was more or less a YA version of A Handmaid’s Tale (and if you haven’t read Margaret Atwood’s classic story, shame on you). Atwood, obviously, does a far better job at crafting, exploring, and explaining her world than Stoker, but if I were 15 I’d be pleased with Stoker’s version. Except if I were 15 I would apparently be too young for the book. Which, again, ugh.
I never got into Young Adult fiction as a teen (it wasn’t anything I was aware of at the time – I pretty much went straight from kids’ books to the classics), and besides, I never liked teenagers even when I was one. The last thing I want to read is a book about a bunch of histrionic teenagers doing stereotypically teenager things while full of heady teenager feels. Of course, the other last things I want to read about are people on space ships shouting about warp drives and women gathering together to cry about the power of sisterhood, so I’m an equal opportunity snob. But after The Registry, New Adult has moved into the top 5 on Alex’s List of Literary No. (Flame on, flamers.)
Ultimately, like whatever you want. I may begrudge the thing the fandom likes, but I’d never begrudge the fandom itself. We’re all geeks here, and we’re all allowed to geek the frak out about whatever we want. My problem with New Adult is that it comes across as a blatant cash grab rather than a “real” subgenre. It feels like they’re trying to force a market share for the Western version of josei or seinen manga. The more I mull it over, the less rage-y I am over its existence, but it still makes me roll my eyes every time I think about it. The things the publishers have decided are the key plot points of New Adult aren’t unique enough to stand out as an entirely separate type of literature (“leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices” have long appeared in both YA and Adult, so why does NA suddenly get to claim ownership?). Perhaps it’s simply too early in the game to get this grumpy. Maybe New Adult has yet to find its footing, to get its own Harry Potter tale that will push the subgenre to new heights. We’ll see.
That being said, I still don’t see why they shouldn’t market the book as YA. Yes, most of the characters are 18 (except the Big Bad who is 28), but because of their isolated, uneducated existence they might as well be 15. In fact, if the characters had been written as 15 it would’ve made the drama of Mia’s impending marriage all the more foreboding, which would’ve made Grant more quietly sinister instead of the over-the-top Bond villain he is now. Subtlety is a quality sadly underused by Stoker.
The Registry would’ve made a decent YA book. It’s no Hunger Games, but it’s still worth reading, if for no other reason than as a light introduction to feminist issues. But as NA it doesn’t work. It more than doesn’t work, it feels petty. As YA, Mia and Andrew come off as sheltered teenagers who are still figuring things out; as NA they come off as repugnantly ignorant adults. And I know, they’re supposed to be ignorant, but damn if it isn’t frustrating. Teens in YA tend to want to get out and learn about the world, how to understand it, how to fix it, or how to fix themselves. Andrew and Mia want to run off to Mexico to have babies together, and Grant wants to be a dick because the story needs someone to be a dick. If Mia and Andrew were 15, it would be easier to forgive their melodramatic romantic fantasies, but at 18 it just gets tiresome.
I hate to end this on a bad note, because The Registry really isn’t a bad book. In this era where people all over the world are fighting to attain basic human rights and where women are constantly struggling against oppression and sexual assault, I’m happy with any book that opens a young person’s eyes to such realities. There are a few structural/plotting issues, the characters are a little underdeveloped, and the dialogue and description could use some tweaking, but, putting aside my personal bias against New Adult, it’s a fine book. It contains the requisite plot twist death of a major character, tacked on love triangle, and Mary Sue’d heroine that make the book easy to fall into and entertaining enough to keep indulging in.
I think of The Registry in the same way I think of the average network television show. Most of them are never going to be above mediocre, but mediocre doesn’t mean lacking in quality. If The Registry ever gets optioned for television, it would fit perfectly on the CW as a lead-in to The Vampire Diaries. (Yes, please!) To continue with this meandering analogy, The Registry is basically the YA/NA equivalent of Law & Order: SVU: it’s an over-reaching drama wrapped in social commentary inside an overused trope. Plus, I like SVU. And I liked The Registry. But only when I pretended it was YA.
The Registry is available June 11 from HarperCollins.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.