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To the Bone

Novelist's first effort cuts deep.

Emma Rathbone's excellent debut novel, “The Patterns of Paper Monsters,” took three years to write.
  • Emma Rathbone's excellent debut novel, “The Patterns of Paper Monsters,” took three years to write.

If first novels can be like pop songs — they psych you up because they're all sexy and new, then they end up feeling kind of formulaic — then Emma Rathbone's “The Patterns of Paper Monsters” is more of a fugue, weaving incisive language and wit, rawness and sophistication.

The journey through the mind of a 17-year-old detention center resident named Jacob Higgins is harrowing, funny and so true-to-life that it almost hurts to go through with it. Except that you just … can't … stop. It took me one and a half days and some serious shirking of desk-job duties, but I wolfed it down like a fat kid eats a doughnut. I knew I'd love it upon reading the opening sentence, “I'm sitting in a cold room next to a girl named Denise Henly who is making wet sounds with her mouth.” Gross, I thought. Gross, and perfect.

Jacob constantly sums up the way we feel when the curtains on our roiling world of emotions are pulled back; the comforts of modern man are plastic, contrived and offensive to him (remember those kitten-and-puppy posters lining the walls at school that said things like “Go for it!” and “Hang in there”?). I've noticed that readers are comparing him to Holden Caulfield and I'm OK with that. Is it possible that he's even surlier and more disillusioned? Could be. But he's definitely funnier.

Now, let's talk about Rathbone. Charlottesville is her home base — she got her master's degree in fine arts at the University of Virginia, she likes breakfast and she couldn't be less like Jacob. She is lovely and quiet, professing to “need routine” and stay at home a lot. So it's deliciously intriguing to imagine her at her desk writing her way though the hormonal rage of a teenage boy.

It took Rathbone three years to complete the novel after a writer friend challenged her to take on a perspective entirely different from her own (she's hard at work on her second book). “It's not like writing the novel was easy, but I got lucky with Jacob's voice,” she says. “It just sort of came to me randomly. It was this specific, kind of snide, sarcastic boy voice, and for some reason, it hit a vein. Writing as Jacob felt very freeing.” 

Emma Rathbone will read from “The Patterns of Paper Monsters” at Gallery5 on Nov. 21 at 4 p.m. Find out more at or


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