The Elephant of Surprise (The Russel Middlebrook Series, Volume 4) by Brent Hartinger

4 stars

Elephant160X233 The Elephant of Surprise is the fourth book in the Lambda Literary Award winning Russel Middlebrook Series that was kicked off by the groundbreaking book Geography Club, and which has been adapted into a feature film slated for released sometime in 2013. Mr. Hartinger continues the tale of Russel and his best friends Min and Gunnar in this fourth volume by mixing humour, danger and romance to unfold an extremely well written story chalk full of life lessons for the threesome. In the process, the author also touches upon important social issues while at the same time not sacrificing the story’s subtleties.

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A visit to the zoo has Russel and his friends laughing about something they call the elephant of surprise (a word play on the element of surprise). That is, the tendency for life to never turn out the way you plan or expect. Russel makes the mistake of not heeding Gunnar’s advice to not tempt fate when he swears off love, and of course the elephant of surprise is just around the corner waiting for all of them.

After breaking up with his long distance boyfriend Otto, Russel and his friends stumble upon a hot, but mysterious guy named Wade and his friend Venus who are dumpster diving for edible food. Wade and Venus introduce Russel and his friends to the “freegans” a community of anti-consumerist that live off the land and what others discard as garbage – a world completely foreign to the threesome.

Although Russel is attracted to Wade, he continues to be drawn to his old flame Kevin Land. Meanwhile, Min suspects that her girlfriend Leah is keeping secrets, and Gunnar just wants to be left alone to pursue his latest obsession, his online documentation of everyday life. Before it’s over, Russel and his friends will learn that the elephant of surprise really does appear when you least expect him – and that when he stomps on you, it really, really hurts.

The story is written in the first person and narrated by Russel, a well-nuanced and delightful character that is completely accessible to the reader. Russel is inquisitive, thoughtful and funny, and also directly interacts with the reader by drawing them into his internal dialogue making him all that more touchable. Min and Gunnar are equally accessible characters, which the author draws out through very intelligent and witty dialogue between the three friends. Min is somewhat more cerebral and practical than Russel and Gunnar and I loved her “matter of fact” and no nonsense disposition. However, of all three protagonists, it is the character of Gunnar that most captured my imagination because of his unabashed quirkiness. Gunnar confidently marches to his own drummer and while he is much less talkative than his two best friends, when he does speak he is often the voice of wisdom. The relationship between the three and their loyalty to one another is also very much a drawing card in this story.

Another aspect of this story that I found quite refreshing is that the teenage angst is not over the top and being gay and out in high school is not a nightmare. All three protagonists are extremely self-possessed and both Russel and Min live, respectively, as out gay and bi teenagers. Although the author does reference some of the issues that Russel experienced in coming out and other issues that LGBT youth face through the character’s internal dialogue, what resonated most is that the journey of this threesome is not focussed on being gay or bi or straight, but about teenagers entering the world and experiencing the diversity that life has to offer in all of its complexities, joys and pains.

Russel’s attraction to Wade and learning more about the mysterious and intriguing “freegans” becomes the main plot of the story and through this adventure Mr. Hartinger captures the sense of invincibility of adolescence and the inherent need to step out into the world and experience as much as possible. While Russel and his friends are not reckless by nature they do make mistakes in both their judgment and actions, some of which could have serious consequences, but this is all part of the process of experiencing and learning life. Through the central storyline, the author also interweaves the more sobering themes of the environment, activism and homelessness.

In the end Russel and his friends learn many lessons about people, friendship, love and relationships, and ways of living. The author well sets-up the next book in the series with somewhat of a cliff-hanger which suggests that there are many more experiences and lessons to come, in particular for Russel who is forced to rethink his assumptions about his ex-boyfriend Kevin.

I was a little nervous going into this book because while I had heard of Geography Club I had not read any of the preceding books in the series. It turns out that my nervousness was completely unfounded. Mr. Hartinger provides a brief summary for each of the previous books in the forward to this one, as well as provides continuity by referencing in this story events that take place in the earlier books so that The Elephant of Surprise can easily be read as a first time title. But if your reading experience with this story is anything like mine, you’ll be backtracking to read the first three books in anticipation of the fifth instalment in the Russel Middlebrook Series.

The Elephant of Surprise is a wonderful story and one that I highly recommend for readers of all ages.

The Elephant of Surprise by Brent Hartinger and all the books in The Russel Middlebrook Series are available at Amazon.

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