***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: This book has a remarkable male voice, a fascinating emotional journey, and an unfortunate meta-fictional ending.
What was great. I was about to pronounce this book nearly perfect...until I got to the very end. I loved Ed's voice to pieces (what a wonderful young-adult male voice). I loved his personality, and his dog, and his relationship with his dog, The Doorman. (I thought the secondary characters were more hit or miss. More on that in a bit.) The beginning, the bank robbery, had me laughing out loud, as did many single lines throughout. Ed's growth was seamlessly, beautifully slow. I liked the nearly-magical-realism of how the pieces fit together so nicely: how he was able to figure out his messages with just a bit of patience and thought, but also got some perfectly-timed nudging from the hovering, but not-quite-angels Keith and Darryl to keep him on track. I loved the way all the people "helping" him were also essentially helping others by making his journey possible--for example, that the bank robber's sacrifice was to spend six months in jail to help Sophie and Milla and the Rose boys, etc.
Secondary characters. The supporting actors were in general good, and nicely varied. Ed's best friend, Marv, was goofy and miserly and flippant, with a current of angst or soulfulness underneath that paid off when we learned the burden he was carrying for the past couple of years. Glaring exceptions: I thought Nick was not fleshed out at all. Audrey was better, but not adequately "real" for the important role she played. The whole point is that Ed loves her, he's not hoping to just have sex with her, so she should have had a lot of depth, and they should have had something more special between them than what we viewed (she cared about him, and they were always kind to each other, but because she had no character the relationship had no character). I mean, The Doorman had more of a personality and a richer relationship with Ed than than both Nick and Audrey. But in general the way Ed returned to visit and commune with many of his "messages" allowed him to develop relationships with them, which rescued this from feeling like a quest--a ticking off of tasks on his way to capturing the magical crown--and more of an emotional journey.
Australia! The setting was delightfully lower- and lower-middle class, and warm and mosquitoey. The language was wonderful. I did, however, find myself noticing Aussie idioms that are basically cliches, and wondering whether it would have seemed quite as poetic if it had been written with the American equivalents--or whether those phrases would have sounded flat rather than colorful.
A couple of things didn't get enough follow-through. I thought the suit that Milla gave Ed was going to end up being of some use to him in straightening out his life, and it wasn't. There was an odd scene before he delivers his message to Nick where he examines a knife in his dish drainer while he's making up his mind about what to do. The knife feels ominous, but nothing happens with it--it's apparently just a moment for Ed to think about his reflection, and his relationship with Nick. The love scene with Audrey at the end misses an opportunity for Ed to revisit his claim in the beginning of the book that he's bad at sex. I fully expected him to realize that the fact of being with someone you love takes the "grading" aspect entirely out of it. They sink to the ground inside the doorway, kissing, and Ed says something like, "when we were done The Doorman came over to us..." It appears that they've consummated their relationship, but it's almost as if Zusak is suddenly shy about tackling the issue that he brought up of Ed's sexual insecurity.
Noooo. The ending. ARGH with the meta-fictional ending. It just ruined the literary magic for me when the author showed up, physically, at the end of the book, announcing that this whole thing is a construction, a fabrication. And he shows up with his writing files in tow, no less! I know Zusak is trying to make a deep point about messages and messengers, but after creating someone as individual as Ed, it just ended up pointing a big, blinking, neon arrow at Ed in the last pages (and retroactively, for the entire book) saying, "FICTIONAL CHARACTER." I was fully transported, and then I was slammed to the ground. I thought the hierarchy of people helping other people to help people was wonderfully mystical--it could have even been left without an explanation. Or alternatively, the book was spiritual in so many ways (Father Thomas, Ed's prayers to himself, Ed's thoughts about souls [Milla's and Jimmy's], the celebration of religious holidays), I thought Zusak could easily have made us wonder, without stating it directly, whether the reason no one knew the answer to who arranged it all was that ultimately it was arranged by God. But instead, Zusak made himself a god!
So close. So close to perfect.