Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll

ubIn Unclaimed Baggage, Jen Doll’s Young Adult debut, readers discover two different stories. One is narrated by a purple suitcase sent to a store for unclaimed baggage. The other is a harrowing account of childhood sexual assault. Instead of choosing to be a fluffy beach read about a first job or a compelling narration of small town sexual assault, Unclaimed Baggage tries to be both, and in doing that, fails both narratives.

Doll is a fantastic journalist. I admire her book reviews for the New York Times and Slate (among many other publications), so I wanted so badly to love Unclaimed Baggage. But, I just couldn’t.

Unclaimed Baggage oozes potential. Every few chapters, there will be a fantastic sentence or two that renews the reader’s excitement and faith in the story. For a few pages, you’ll want to read on. But, ultimately these sentences were too few and too far apart to save the novel.

The silliness of a purple suitcase narrating part of the story only diminishes the importance of the narrative about sexual assault, but the story of sexual assault feels out of place in a novel where narrators include purple suitcases. Furthermore, the touch of whimsy brought by enigmatic aunts, sentient suitcases, and secret clubhouses seems misplaced and too childish for many Young Adult readers.

This lack of definable genre affects the plot as well. While each of the three central characters (the classic high school clichés: new girl, outcast, and quarterback) has their own conflict, none are very compelling because no character stands out against countless other Young Adult protagonists. I never felt real tension or a reason to root for any character because I felt I had already read their story and knew the ending. The only thing that grounds Unclaimed Baggage is the store that the three work at, but the characters don’t even spend much time there.

Throughout the novel, there are glimpses of a great story. But, these glimpses just weren’t enough for me. I’ve seen what Doll is like as a journalist. She is a talented writer, which is why I just don’t understand how Unclaimed Baggage came to be.

I’m confident Doll can shed superficial fluff and get to the real meat of her stories next time. I look forward to seeing what she writes after Unclaimed Baggage.

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