If one reads the author’s notes at the end of the book, Jerry Spinelli states that his story was greatly influenced by Giraudoux’s version of the fairytale Ondine
. I haven’t formally read this version of the tale, but I have read the version by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, which Giraudoux used as the basis for his own play. In Giraudoux’s version of the tale, the main theme focuses on the male lead’s failure to reconcile the difference between the mystical aspects that can exist within nature with the strict maintenance of society’s accepted laws, i.e. society’s failure to accept any individual difference that threatens to break up the “whole.” In Fouqué’s version, Undine is an impish changeling, who can only gain a soul through love and marriage with a man who truly loves her in return, and can thus obtain true human form. While Giraudoux’s version does encompass the narrator’s emotional struggles in Spinelli’s book, I think Fouqué’s version more aptly illustrates Spinelli’s “Undine”—Stargirl.
Spinelli plays with extremes in this novel. Stargirl marches to the beat of her own drum, but this “beat” transcends normal behavior to an exaggerated degree. As Stargirl, she’s an impish figure—alternatively singing, dancing around, trying out various gauche attempts at being humorous, turning serious situations into farces. And when confronted with the awkwardness of her behavior, for example when she crashes the wake of a man she never personally knew, she is empty; she can’t answer for herself. Her inability to explain herself is not from lack of courage. For her, an explanation simply doesn’t exist; there is no reason for her actions. She acts solely on impulse, not necessarily for any personal gain on her part; or for that matter is she considering the feelings of those involved in her various schemes. As a person, Stargirl doesn’t seem real. Even when she adopts the mainstream look as “Susan,” it doesn’t come off as being natural. Both as Stargirl and as Susan, her manic behavior and actions seem forced, as if she’s acting various parts to mask a hidden inner void, a fractured sense of self.
Leo, the book’s narrator, thus assumes the role of Stargirl’s potential “savior,” her significant other—someone to help ground her and give her that internal sense of well-being. The novel chronicles his struggles with this role. Can a boy adequately meet these demands when faced with society—i.e. his schoolmates—, as well as the obstacles Stargirl constantly throws at him? Additionally, will their interaction have a lasting effect upon each other? For Leo, the answer is readily apparent; but for Stargirl, the response is more ethereal.
When approaching Spinelli’s novel, I wasn’t expecting to read a psychological fairytale. It is certainly a different take from the more conventional “individual against society” story one finds in contemporary literature. However by novel’s end, Stargirl’s story feels somewhat incomplete. But from my reading of the companion novel, the question of identity is more fully explored there.