Review 30: Chappaqua by Robert D. Toonkel

Chappaqua: A Novel
by Robert D. Toonkel
Copyright: © 2008
482 Pages
Paperback $17.00
Ebook $5.00

DeGrassi Junior High, DeGrassi High, Saved by the Bell, 90210, Dawson’s Creek…the list goes on and on of irresistible melodramas which have sought to capture the essence of teen life through the years, often with a high school setting since those four years of a teenager’s life can certainly be ever changing.  I know mine were.  These days, our brains can’t fathom these made up tales and we wanted to hear from real people, people like us, so we handed kids a camera and told them to go film their “real” stories.  But we’ve discovered reality isn’t any better.  But that’s television!  What books were your reading in high school?  Were there any that stick out in your mind, that possibly changed your life at that time?

I was stuck in a Stephen King phase in high school, determined to read every word he’d written even if it took me four years to do it.  So, to research what kids are reading these days, like any computer literate American, I Googled it.  When googling “teen novel,” I was quickly redirected to several best selling lists composed by various people at Amazon.com….Princess Diaries, some girl named Alice, Harry Potter, the Twilight series…what ever happened to Blubber, Freckle Juice, and It’s Me Margaret?

Back then, it was “just say no,” pimples, and popularity.  These days it’s teen pregnancy, guns in school, and more drugs.  And even though more stories these days are based on fantasy and vampires, there is one theme that hasn’t changed through the years. Acceptance. Kids till vy for popularity and attention.  They all want to be #1.  That’s why I found Robert Toonkel’s book, Chappaqua, to be a classic take on those old themes from what teens were reading yesterday but still a timeless fresh, and eye-opening, look at teens in today’s high school setting.

Based on the cover alone - a pale robin eggshell blue with a picture of a statue, obviously some important dignity somewhere, and dark blue letters with a subtitle that reads “Slight imperfections in America’s perfect town” - you’d probably think this was going to be a history lesson on some corrupt political figure or East coast war that textbooks forgot.  Even the simple title, Chappaqua, sets you up for either an unknown community piece no one but locals would care about or some piece of Kennedy-like Peyton Place gossip.  But all of these assumptions are completely wrong.

Instead, it is the story of Katie Fitzpatrick.  She’s about to be a senior, and she’s the girl everyone else desires to be.  She has perfect grades, great looks, lots of friends, she’s an all-star athlete and writer for the school paper.  She’s the center of attention among the girls and the guys. It’s the all-American dream for any teen on the verge of their final year of high school.  But sometimes people like that probably wish they were dreaming.

Now, Katie may sound like a predictable character sketch we all know (or personally knew while in high school), but Toonkel paints his characters with such realism and belief that it makes this story new all over again. The author pushes his narrative forward with excellent use of dialogue, interesting description, and a touch of humor.  Imagine over hearing bits of a hundred conversations in the hallway between classes or at prom, but being able to understand everything with great accuracy.

The mod system, which always included “J mod” for homeroom, had given rise to a new language on the Greeley campus, one whose mastery required both time and skill. Visitors from other schools might think they were on another planet when they heard students asking one another, “Can we do this during QRS?” or “Do we have five-mod biology today?” Plenty of Greeley students had graduated with an advanced knowledge of calculus or chemistry, but no idea whether a TUV class began at 12:50 or 12:55.

Toonkel uses his setting, the town of Chappaqua, as an ideal place where such a perfect student can grow up in the perfect town.  But, he throws a wrench into its well oiled wheels which sends Katie’s real life dream spinning out of control.  Conflict builds as Katie falls deeper into trouble after one single “life-altering” event, and seeks understanding and guidance from the very community that denies anything could be wrong.  After all, they’ve put Katie on a pedestal and made her the center of attention (imagery conveyed quite beautifully on the book cover).  How could anything be wrong?

There are valuable lessons here for both parents and teens, as we experience one young girl’s drastic fall from the top.  Sure, most of us didn’t like the cool and the popular if we weren’t part of them, but they may still need people to turn to when they aren’t crying wolf.  Regretting reaching out to them after it’s too late is not something any teen should suffer from. After all, no matter how much we excell at, we still all breathe the same air and need a friend to count on from time to time.

Although quite long and still in need of a bit of editing, Toonkel’s story is original and well thought out. The last chapter alone will have you thinking about Katie for a long time after you’ve closed the cover. Thanks to Robert Toonkel for creating an excellent and inspiring read for teens of today, and yesterday.  This book is a lesson in life every teen shouldn’t learn the hard way.

2 Responses to “Review 30: Chappaqua by Robert D. Toonkel”

  1. The suburbs north of New York City are often ignored as the setting for most books and movies. I never understood why considering the amount of successful professionals that live there and commute regularly into Manhattan to run world markets, run high powered law firms, or hold positions in some of world’s most renowned companies. These are interesting people and to reach that zenith, these highly motivated and educated people expect nothing but the best for their children. Using this backdrop, Robert Toonkel has created a beautifully written story about Katie Fitzpatrick of Chappaqua, who reflects the perfect kid in what is believed to be the perfect town. From the opening of the book set on the beaches of Long Island where Katie and her friends anxiously anticipate their senior year to her ensuing adventures, readers will instantly be taken back to their own final days in high school. Making this story more interesting is the fact this story takes place before Chappaqua became nationally recognized by the Clinton’s or experienced the boom of the early 21st century. Set in a simpler time (the early 90’s), it is interesting to be taken back to a world for before cell phones and teenagers would spend hours chatting on instant messager. For anyone that wants to a story that goes beyond the traditional teenage formula this is a highly recommended read.

  2. [...] had the pleasure of reading Robert Toonkel’s book, Chappaqua, in August as part of our Back to School focus.  Just yesterday, I noticed Robert’s book had [...]

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