Cringe scenes are the best.
They grab me and bring me right into the world of fiction and make me imagine, believe even, that I can help. Take this one, for example, from Little Women:
Younger Amy March: [Jo is curling Meg’s hair] What’s that smell? Like burnt feathers.
Meg: You’ve ruined me!
When I read this scene for the first time, I imagined traveling back in time to save the day. Maybe I’d warn the daydreaming Jo to pay attention with the curling iron? Maybe I’d offer Meg a pretty bonnet to hide the damage? Who knows? The fact is that I dripped with compassion for poor Meg, and I would have done anything to fix the terrible cringe-worthy moment.
Oh, life would be so much better if we could all be polished, lovely, and mistake-free all the time.
But where is the conflict in that?
The best cringe scene I read recently is in Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree.
Fish in a Tree is a fairly new book, just out last year, so I don’t want to spoil it. But, oh, I must!
Without giving away too many details, let me tell you this: there is a lunchroom scene flashback that explains the hostility between Ally and Shay. Ally tells the story in a raw, honest, vulnerable voice that makes you want to reach into the pages and hug her. I was crying and laughing as I read it.
Ally and Shay’s relationship is not a boring, old, cliché between a bully and a bullee; no, they’ve come by their animosity toward one another honestly, in the most deliciously cringe-worthy scene I’ve read in a long time.
It’s fabulous. How could it not be? It involves cake. It trumps even the opening scene when Ally gives a less-than-appropriate card to her teacher. Come to think of it, Ally suffers more cringe-worthy moments than I think I could bear, and that’s saying a lot, considering when I was in 7th grade, I looked like this:
Readers will want to hug Ally and to find a way to make her path in life easier, and they will also want to shake and tell her to get a clue. Either way, they will be drawn to walk her conflict-fraught path with her, and that’s what makes her character so magnetic and Fish in a Tree so impossible to put down.
Go read it and have yourself a good laugh, cry, and cringe.