Book Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Young Adult
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian
Page Count: 391
Format: Hardcover (library copy)
Reading time: 4 hours
Date Finished: 1/08/17
My impressions: I enjoyed reading Catching Fire nearly as much as I enjoyed reading The Hunger Games, but upon some reflection, I have mixed feelings about it as a piece of narrative fiction. While I feel it’s a very well-written and effective story, it’s also a novel where I can see the narrative seems poking out a bit more, as well as some missed opportunities to strengthen the narrative and characters. This is not to say I disliked the book in any way; in fact, I was quite impressed with some of the ideas of it, and I appreciated that Suzanne Collins did not pull punches in showing the dark side of living in her dystopian world and that she explored the difficulties of living in a privileged state among those who suffering from poverty. But I did see some opportunities for the story to be tighter and stronger.
The biggest area of opportunity lay in the love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta. Whereas Peeta was a murky figure coming into focus during the first book, here he’s underplayed and underdeveloped, constantly portrayed (and even referred to fairly directly by other characters) as being the perfect man if only Katniss would realize how great he is. This becomes one of the frustrating aspects of the story, because Katniss’s rejection of Peeta is partially due to him being the proscribed choice to appease the Capitol audience and partially due to her desire to live wild and free with Gale. What’s missing, and what would have strengthened the motivation for her reluctance, is the idea that Peeta is himself flawed in some way – perhaps overly jealous, or overly possessive, or newly confident and growing into a sense of dominating her. He has the opportunity for other flaws as well – perhaps his nightmares are driving him to paranoia, or perhaps he’s so fearful of harming others with his actions that he’s afraid to act. The book goes to great lengths to tell us how incredible he is as an artist, as a speaker, as a charitable person and as a companion, and Katniss’s rejection of him seems irrational and even stupid at times.
The other side of this triangle, Gale, is barely in the story, and whereas Katniss went out of her way in the first novel to articulate that there was nothing between them romantically, here she has fully-developed feelings for him. Here the narrative had an opportunity to spend more time exploring those feelings and to have her try to understand her attraction to him. Gale is clearly a surrogate for her father who represents the same feelings of freedom, control and escape – does she mistake her affection for him as a romantic bond? Or is it that Katniss is repeating the same cycle as her mother (who married Katniss’s father instead of Peeta’s father), and there is some opportunity to explore those feelings through her mother’s experience? Maybe some of this gets resolved in the third book (though it’s doubtful, given the ending of this one), but it seems like Gale is more of an apparition in the story than a true romantic choice, and much more could have been explored here.
One character the story does flesh out is Haymitch, and my chief complaint about him is that he goes from being the town drunk to the seeming mastermind behind Katniss’s dissent. I like the idea that even as the Mockingjay, Katniss feels like she’s a pawn in someone else’s game and that she’s being used towards ends she sympathizes with, but doesn’t control, and I like the idea of Haymitch being the lever that manipulates her. Those are all strong aspects of the story. And yet, there is still more opportunity there for the tension and struggle that was in the first novel, and here, it feels like the author was trying to fit 500 pages’ worth ideas into under 400 pages of proscribed length. The Quarter Quell, in particular, moves so quickly towards its resolution that it the ideas unpacked in the last 10 pages hit like a ton of bricks instead of the careful tension-release structure of the original novel.
I’m interested to read Mockingjay because I’ve heard it goes in some very unexpected directions, much to the chagrin of some fans. And I’m OK with that, because while I found Catching Fire to be an enjoyable sequel and a good follow-up to the original novel, I also felt that in expanding the dystopian world of Panem and the characters within it, the novel had quite a few areas that were rougher and less polished than the tight original book. This tends to happen with sequels, and it’s something you see in long-running series as authors abandon certain ideas from the original novels they spent years working on and then chase the things they find most narratively interesting in the shorter cycles spent writing the follow-ups. As such, the best sequels are usually those that not only expand the universe, but then make big changes to prevent the stories from repeating the same patterns over and over and feeling too formulaic. (Harry Potter did this quite effectively, growing the stakes of its storytelling with its characters.) In this case, having a second Hunger Games for Katniss to participate in was a fine trick for a sequel, but it would be disastrous to see it in Mockingjay. By that point, the character needs to have grown beyond the Games and be something else – even if it is (as I suspect) the architect of their downfall.
We’ll see how I feel about Mockingjay when I finish it tomorrow!