Melissa, the protagonist of Escape from “Special” (Fantagraphics), is an odd sort of fusion of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse and Daria Morgendorffer. If Daria is the acerbic iconoclast one wishes one had been, and Dawn is the needy abuse-magnet one fears one was, Melissa is probably closer to the reality.
She’s ill-equipped for the average school environment, outspoken and bright but miles behind other students because of time spent at an experimental school too respectful of self-esteem and self-directed learning to actually teach anyone anything. Placed first in her new public school’s remedial group, then pegged as brilliant thanks to the wonders of standardized testing, Melissa has seen the various disadvantages of being “special,” and she’d much rather be normal.
She’s alternately repulsed by convention and frustrated by her inability to adhere to it; her disapproval isn’t a mask for jealousy so much as its uncomfortable companion. Her contempt for schoolyard social norms is genuine, but so is her sometimes scorching need to adopt them, or at least pass.
Miss Lasko-Gross tells her story in a string of short vignettes, not all of which dwell on Melissa’s social struggles. We meet Melissa’s permissive, relentlessly positive parents, Jacqui and Tod, who take her to ashrams and on folk-band tours. There encounters with her child therapist, among my favorite scenes in the book, that Melissa views with all of the enthusiasm of a captured member of La Résistance. The diversions give Melissa some very welcome roundness as a character.
At the same time, it seems like Lasko-Gross is more of an observer than a storyteller. Appealing and effective as the vignettes are, they don’t accumulate into an entirely solid narrative. In a sense, that feels right, as the kind of messy, everyday life Lasko-Gross is portraying doesn’t lend itself to measured narrative momentum. But I still don’t think the book entirely overcomes its casual structure.
It does leave you with a vivid, indelible, ultimately sympathetic character in Melissa, though. Her blunt observations, rebelliousness and frustrations are presented with frank intelligence and rueful humor, and Lasko-Gross has a real knack for rendering pre-teen miseries (real and perceived) without a trace of condescension.