It's hard to have perspective when you're staring through the slits of the locker you've been stuffed in, but we swear life gets better. Pretty much anyone who's lived through being bullied as a teen knows this to be true. Alas, as the new kid at Baileywell Preparatory Academy, in Bullyville, Bart Rangely is in the thick of the bullying years, enduring impromptu trips into his locker along with other indignities—including the unfortunate nickname of "Fart Strangely"—all thanks to his tormenter, Tyro. To Bart, it doesn't feel like things will get better. In fact, it seems like things are getting worse.
See, Bart isn't just having a hard time at school. He's also grieving his father, who was killed in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. His father's death earned Bart instant celebrity in his small town, which is dealing with sadness and shock in the wake of September 11. But what people don't know—what no one knows except for Bart's mom—is that Bart's dad walked out on his family six months before his death. So on top of dealing with his grief and his anger about being abandoned along with his dad's death, keeping this secret is messing with Bart's head.
Bullyville doesn't delve deeply into the aftermath of September 11; it's used more as a jumping-off point to explore themes of death and violence. And while you might be thinking you need to grab a box of tissues before you start reading, know that author Francine Prose doesn't really inspire the waterworks in this book. While hard feelings and experiences show up on nearly every page, Prose takes her, um, prose in a different direction, away from the waterworks and into the heart and mind of a very emotionally-reserved young man.
All told, Prose has written twenty works of fiction, two of which have been finalists for the National Book Award, plus she has earned both a Guggenheim fellowship and a Fulbright grant. So yeah, she's pretty fancy. Now let's get going… before Tyro comes along and makes us.
But in real life, emotions are much more complex and subject to change. Bullyville deals with one big emotion—grief—but it's never only grief. The grief is always tinged with other feelings like guilt, embarrassment, and even rage. These emotions fight with one another, making the main character, Bart, feel confused and conflicted. And to make matters even more complicated, his emotions aren't static; they change over time. Just like ours (because yes, Shmoop has feelings).
In Bullyville, big messy emotions make characters behave in unpredictable ways, and the way people act doesn't always line up with the ways in which we think they should act. People are cruel when we expect them to be kind; they get into bloody fistfights when we think they'll hug it out. And by the end of the novel, no one comes away with any hard-won lessons. Instead the book's message is much more open-ended: Sometimes people—ourselves included—behave in mysterious ways. Weird as that may seem, it's totally normal.
Curious About Prose?
Francine Prose, that is. If so, check out her page at her publisher's website. It doesn't have much, but it will help you choose the next Prose book you want to read.
Informal Book Club
Want to know what Prose reads? The author talks about her favorite books at the New York Times.
Quick Little Review
This review of Bullyville at Publisher's Weekly might be brief, but it sure is glowing.
Peek Into the Author's Kitchen
Francine Prose and her husband talk with the Wall Street Journal about cooking at home. Warning: This may make you hungry.
Prose on Her Prose
The author talks about her path to becoming a writer.
Give Your Eyes a Break
Listen to an excerpt from the Bullyville audiobook.
Meet the Author
Without further ado, we present Francine Prose.