On the Docket: Like the Red Panda by Andrea Seigel

Genre: Literary Fiction

The Plot: The intelligent but alienated Stella writes about her final two weeks of high school. Her philosophical musings on the high school experience are keenly observed, with a fascinatingly mature clarity of mind. Stella visits her maternal grandfather in a nursing home, struggles to communicate meaningfully with her foster parents, and attempts to navigate the pitfalls of middle-class life.

First Impressions: Normally, I get an icky taste in my mouth from novels that insist on recounting the miseries of upper/middle-class life. Seigel’s novel takes place in Orange County, which has been the setting for a variety of recent television shows about the wealthier half: The O.C., The Real Housewives of Orange County, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, etc. If you have seen any of these programs, you’ll understand why I might have been hesitant about the credibility of Stella as a legitimately sad, alienated, young girl. It was no fault of the author that bad reality TV was getting in the way of her exquisite writing. Admittedly, my memory of these shows momentarily coloured my interpretation of this story… but not for long.

I have never encountered a character so honest and authentic as Stella. Throughout this book, Stella is waiting (grasping at straws!) for something to change her mind about the pointlessness of the world. Initially, I couldn’t understand why she was so disconnected. Eventually though, it becomes crystal clear why she is unable to truly feel anything. This book does what The Winner Stands Alone could not. The underlying philosophy of Seigel’s novel is mature, honest, and terribly sad. It is not trite or pretentious or condescending. Stella simply observes what she sees and concludes that life is a certain way based on her own experiences. It is not a fancy philosophy but it’s incredibly effective. There are moments of pure hilarity but there comes a moment near the end when the reader cannot be distracted by funny jokes because Stella has already made her decision about life and the world. She hopes to be convinced otherwise and, in those final two weeks, encounters a variety of quietly interesting people, most notably a girl called Ainsley. This quiet, sad girl intrigues Stella (and the reader) in surprising ways. Ainsley’s own family life and friendships are more than questionable, but the reader is never privy to her entire story.

The additional cast of characters (Ashley, Daniel, and Shana) are a significant part of Stella’s story. They all add an additional ring of truth to the world Seigal has constructed. When I finished this book, I actually cried. Stella was so real and her alienation so palpable that I felt her heartache for the entire journey. At the end, I was just as confused as she had been.

Final Verdict: This book has had a profound impact on me. I will never forget Stella or her story. If you ever get the opportunity to read this novel, I urge you to (please!) do so. I can only hope to write like this one day.