16/01/2008

Pay it Forward (by Catherine Ryan Hyde)

I had not come across Catherine Ryan Hyde until I read one of her books nearly a year ago, 'Love in the Present Tense', sent to me for review for The Bookbag site. I found it intriguing, and decided to look at other books by the same author.

I had heard of the film 'Pay It Forward', and was undecided about whether to buy it. I had not realised it was based on a book by Catherine Ryan Hyde. I immediately added the book to my wishlist, then forgot about it until it arrived as a Christmas gift.

I knew the outline of the story from reading reviews of the film, and hearing people talk about it. A schoolboy in the USA comes up with an idea for a social studies assignment, which he thinks could change the world. The idea was that he would do three 'good deeds' - not just casual ones, but something taking considerable effort or time.

He would not ask for any payment; instead, he would ask each of the people concerned to 'pay it forward' rather than back - ie to find three others who needed helping in a big way, and give them something for nothing, telling them in turn to 'pay it forward'. And so on. The world would indeed change fairly rapidly if everyone took this to heart.

I found the book rather confusing, at first. The introductory chapter is written in the first person by a reporter called Chris, ten years after the story begins. Then we switch to Reuben, a new teacher who was a war veteran, and has some facial disfigurement. He is the one who gives this world-changing assignment. In the middle of this chapter is a short interview piece by Reuben to Chris, supposedly after the event.

Then there's a snippet from Trevor's diary. Trevor is the boy with the idea, in Reuben's class. Then we meet Arlene, Trevor's mother. Her boyfriend Ricky, Trevor's father, has been gone for nearly a year but she hasn't totally accepted it yet.

Then there are a whole host of minor characters, some of whom we only meet for a chapter. Trevor starts the practical side of his assignment by doing three very different 'good deeds'. He agrees to tidy up the gardens of an elderly lady in his street, for no pay. He gives some of his savings to a guy who is down on his luck. And he thinks that his wonderful teacher would be exactly the man for his mother, so he tries to get them together...

It took me a while to realise that there are two broad threads to the book. One is the story of Trevor, Arlene and Reuben. Trevor is rather disappointed that none of his great ideas seem to be working out, although he writes the assignment anyway, and tries to act as go-between when his mother and Reuben argue or don't communicate. He's a very likeable lad.

The other strand of the story is where we see results of the 'pay it forward' movement, as it begins to gather momentum. Trevor has no idea that any of the people he helped have actually gone ahead and done things for others, which is slightly frustrating, particularly at times when we realise how close they are to knowing - bu tnot quite!

Then Chris gets involved, starting when he learns about 'The Movement', and tries to trace it back to its founder, with a great deal of difficulty.

I found it rather hard going at times - it isn't a book to sit down and read in one sitting, as there are so many people involved. Then again, it's quite confusing to read it over a week or two; I quite often forgot who the characters were and had to back-track before I could continue.

However, by the time I got to the last hundred pages or so, I was hooked. There is a great climax, and then a shocking second climax, which I was half-expecting (having read and heard so much about the film). And an extremely moving conclusion, that brought a few tears to my eyes.

The whole idea is wonderful - the concept of 'paying it forward' hasn't taken off internationally, sadly, yet it could have done. It's book about honour, and kindness, and imagination, and honesty. I suppose it's also rather escapist - the cynics in the book who were convinced that people simply wouldn't bother were, presumably, correct.

From my own perspective, there's a Christian theme underlying the book, too. It's the concept of Grace - God's undeserved gifts to mankind - which should result in us 'paying it forward' in love for our neighbours and friends. It's a sad commentary on the church today that few people seem to practise this kind of thing.

Definitely recommended. I shall probably read this again in a few years.

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