Pay It Forward, by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Pay It Forward

The concept of Pay It Forward has some promise, but the execution ranges from average to dreadful.

I want to like this book more than I do. The premise, with which most people are probably already familiar since this is a well-known book and has been a movie as well (which I haven’t seen), is that a young boy hits upon an idea for an extra-credit social studies assignment that he will do three big favors for people, and ask them instead of paying him back, to look for opportunities in the future to do favors for three other people, thus “paying it forward.”

Like a chain letter (except that it’s not a self-serving scam), if enough people go along with it, soon the number of significant acts of kindness will multiply out of control. As is described late in the book, a world will be created where people are having so many good things done for them, and accepting obligations to then do three times that many good things for others, that they’ll give up trying to keep up with the math and it’ll just be automatic that people are living for others, always seizing opportunities to do good.

A wonderful sentiment, certainly. Unfortunately, Hyde is just not much of a writer.

The characters are caricatures, and the dialogue sounds like an adult education creative writing class. From the start the characters and events never felt real to me.

I did adjust to that to some extent as I went along. I don’t think the writing gets any better, but I found it less jarring in the second half of the book than in the first half, probably because my expectations had been lowered by then.

One thing I found odd—more in a positive than a negative way—is the inclusion of a peripheral transgendered teenage boy character, and the way he is presented so sympathetically and favorably. Perhaps more surprisingly, the social phenomenon of girly teenage boys dating men old enough to be their father or grandfather is presented favorably as well.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s a very politically correct book, with the main black character being an altogether noble fellow whose only shortcoming (soon overcome) is not being fully able accept the love and human closeness that he deserves. The plucky single mother eventually proves able to stand up to and defeat the loser guy from her past. And so on.

But still, the inclusion of the transgendered boy stood out to me. I’d even say there’s the hint of something a little more psychologically complex or dark in his characterization that’s utterly lacking elsewhere in the book. Though in some ways he’s, as expected, the innocent victim, his behavior has a certain masochism to it, or at least an unhealthy thrill-seeking element of putting himself in dangerous situations.

It almost feels like the author has someone like that in her personal life, or has some direct experience with that subculture. For a lot of readers that character probably stands out as the most unreal and bizarre, but for me he’s the one (albeit only partial) exception that seemed more like a real person.

So I didn’t believe or care about the characters for the most part, but what about the book just as a fairy tale, judged by a lowered standard of realism? Seen that way does it work better? Is it an inspiring story?

A little bit. It reminded me that social reality is in our hands, it’s what we create. And we could and should do an enormously better job creating it. But I’ve read plenty of books and seen plenty of movies that made me think about that same basic point, and that hit me a lot harder emotionally.

Of course Pay It Forward’s heart is in the right place and the central concept is a fine idea, though the way it plays out calls attention to its gimmicky nature. I like the idea of doing good and encouraging people who want to repay you to “pay it forward.” But there’s no particular reason for it to be tied to the specific number three, or for there to be a formality to it, or a “movement.”

Anyway, I think this book could have been a lot better if the author had limited her role to coming up with the basic “pay it forward” idea, and then turned the writing over to someone who could write.


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