Friday, March 9, 2012

6-Star Reviews Part 44: Simply Rarity

To read the story, click the image or follow this link

Rarity time!  Following close on the heels of Carousel, we have another origin-type story.  Find my review of Somber's Simply Rarity after the break.

Thoughts before reading:  This is one of the more popular and well-known fanfics out there.  At the very least, it's one of the stories of which my review has been most anticipated, if the number of comments/e-mails I've gotten asking about it are any indication.  It's written in journal format, which has a lot of potential pitfalls, but there have been some wonderful stories written in that style in the past.  Just like any writing style, there's always a way to do it right.

When I first read this story, I was underwhelmed.  Why?  I don't remember, honestly.  It's been a long time, and obviously this one didn't really stand out to me after reading.  Might as well dive in and see what I think after closer examination.

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  When Rarity gives Twilight a birthday present that some of her friends think is too cheap, Rarity's reaction to their insults drives Twilight to wonder why their barbs struck so deep.  The answer lies in Rarity's past, and the troubled path which brought her to the present.

Thoughts after reading:  One of the major complaints about this story seems to be that Applejack is portrayed as a massive jerk in it.  While I won't argue that point, it didn't really bother me.  Applejack can be kind of a jerk in the show, after all--all of the ponies can be.  Ribbing a friend for getting a chintzy gift seems entirely within the realm of believability to me, even if it is still a dick move.

No, my problems with this story didn't start until the exposition was out of the way and the diary began.  The major problem was the use of the format itself.  One of the reasons that writing a good diary story is so difficult is because it has all the pitfalls of first-person narrative, with the additional restriction that not even the focus character's inner thoughts can be directly revealed.  Even they are working through a medium, and while a character keeping a journal can reasonably speak about all sorts of personal or embarrassing things which they might not be willing to address in real life, the fact that the audience's insights must still be limited to whatever they might actually chose to write down makes it hard for an author to show some things without sacrificing believability.

While there was no moment when reading that I threw up my hands in the air and exclaimed "Now that's just stupid," at a number of points I was unconvinced by the format.  For example, the entries which dealt with the conclusions of the Rarity's father and Unique segments respectively were utterly unbelievable to me.  They were very powerful and touching, but I didn't believe for one minute that anyone, anywhere, ever kept a diary that looked anything like that.  When an author has to sacrifice the believability of their central conceit for the sake of the overall story, then to me that means that either they shouldn't have gone with that format, or they should have reconsidered the story arc in question.

Similar problems occur when Somber wants to either make something clear to the reader that wouldn't be obvious from Rarity's normal writing, or wants to show that Rarity is aware of something which she wouldn't write in her diary normally.  This story is full of Freudian slips where Rarity accidentally tells more than she intends too.  Some are struck through (though never scratched out completely, conveniently), while others are left to stand unmarked, presumably unnoticed even by their author.  Rarity that is, not Somber--I'll assume he knew what he was doing.  Having a couple of these in a story is one thing: it falls under the purview of dramatic coincidence, i.e. something that may not be the most likely thing in the world, but helps move the story along and doesn't strain believability too much.  But when a story is packed full of accidental revelations like this, the collective weight of all the "slip-ups" starts to rankle.  At a certain point, the author either needs to find a better way to convey this information to the reader, or needs to re-examine how much of it is really necessary in the first place.

Simply Rarity deals with a number of adult themes, including poverty, child welfare, and social responsibility. For the most part, I thought these were well handled.  Although this story has little in common with the show in terms of tone of setting, it still treats with the themes of generosity and responsibility in a simple (though certainly not simplistic) manner.  That said, I felt there was one major mistake from a tone standpoint: an entry which seems to imply that Rarity (as a filly) had been living with a pedophile, and may have been molested, made me literally spit out my tea in shock when I first read it (my keyboard still seems to be working despite some liquid damage, so I guess that's what's important).  It was handled so casually that I couldn't fathom why the author chose to include it--it added nothing to the story that couldn't have been easily gained through less disturbing means, and felt incredibly inappropriate to me.  I know it dragged me right out of the story, and I had trouble getting back into it after that.

Other than some inconsistency on the capitalization of unicorn and pegasus, and a few punctuation errors entering quotes, the piece was well edited.  In the diary, I thought Somber did a great job of capturing Rarity's voice, and of altering that voice just enough to reflect her straits during any given entry while still holding the essential inflection of the character.

The end of the story was touching.  The entire piece is essentially an examination of what it means to be generous, and different expressions of this core concept appear throughout Rarity's journal.  By the conclusion, Rarity's own ideas of generosity are clear, and her expressions thereof are given new relevance.  One of the marks of a powerful story is that it enhances one's ability to empathize with a character, and that was certainly the case here.

Star rating:   (what does this mean?)

This is a powerful tale, but there are some significant flaws in its execution.  The journal format is frequently a hindrance to the story Somber's trying to tell, excessive dramatic coincidences strain credulity, and casual (and thematically unnecessary) suggestions of child molestation are about as mood-breaking as anything I can imagine.

Recommendation:  I can certainly understand why this is a popular fic, even for its flaws.  The arc of the story is strong and well-considered, and it does a wonderful job of getting the reader to think about what generosity really is.  For anyone who can accept the weaknesses of the format and structure, the underlying story is one you'll find rewarding.

Next time:  Sweet Apple Capers, by The RPGenius


  1. *whistles*

    Welp, best be expecting the torches and pitchforks, I reckon.

    Seriously though, interesting to have your take on it. As with so many things that stand out in my mind, this was one of the first things I read, back when I just entered the fandom and everything as bright and shiny and wonderful, so to see such a contrasting view is rather striking.

    I haven't gone back to reread it in ages, but perhaps I should so I can reevaluate my stance on blindly recommending this fic to folks.

  2. While I hadn't been waiting with eager anticipation for your review, when I saw that you were finally going to cover it I was curious as to what your thoughts on it were going to be. And I must say that you haven't touched what I thought was the biggest hinderance to me personally. I liked the story, barely noticed the over use of the slips, had a little trouble believing someone would keep a diary like this (but I've never understood the appeal of them myself, so its hard to imagine why anyone would keep one, but again thats a personal opinion) and felt it was a heart-wrenchingly warm tale by the end of it. No, I have a single problem with the story that takes away any of my credibile feelings towards it.

    Rarity didn't write this diary.

    At the very least, if she DID it's a fictious story. Now mind you, I'm not even counting what Season 2 revealed when I say this. I read this well before Season 2 said anything about her upbringing or parents or her becoming popular in Canterlot. I read this during Season 1 and STILL didn't think it was Rarity.

    My reason being: this fic makes it out to sound like Rarity doesn't ACTUALLY want to live in Canterlot, that she doesn't ACTUALLY want to be rich and famous or that she doesn't ACTUALLY love high-society life. This would make sense in context of what was revealed in the journal, but doesn't hold up even with Episode 1 of the show. And to quote:

    "Canterlot!? Oh I am so envious! The glamour, the sophistication, I have always DREAMED of living there!"

    I'm sorry, but who is this Rarity that gives away ALL of her money, charges her friends for their dresses and secretly doesn't want to be a high-society pony? Rarity is generous for sure, but because she can afford to do so because she has the money to back up any time she invests in personal garments (and even those she admits to putting up for sale in the shop).

    THAT is why I don't think it deserves the full 6-star treatment. It breaks too much of who the character is to be worthy of that. To me a 6-Star story keeps everything about the character we know and love true to the interpretations we saw in the show. You can GIVE them a super-sad backstory, so long as that leads to EXACTLY who they are upon their revelations in the show. And I don't feel Simply Rarity does that at all.

    I'd give it 5/6 stars for being a bloody brilliant read, but it loses that 6-star status in my eyes for not actually being about 'Rarity'.

    1. Oh hello, didn't expect to see you here. XD

  3. I did find the strike-throughs a bit overwhelmingly convenient, but it wasn't *that* jarring for me. The molesting thing honestly didn't stand out for me above the rest of the stuff already being thrown out, but that's exactly what marred it for me.

    The whole thing felt more like an explanation that a story to me. Start with something to explain - list reasons, - end. There was too MUCH stuff going on in my mind, and that felt way too forced to me. Not much in the way of subtlety, no twists, so surprises beyond how many more personal tragedies could be wheeled out in succession.

    Aside from the very valid points about the character from the show not appearing to be anything like the Rarity presented here, kids that go though that kind of trauma do not tend to turn out like the fierce independent and generous pony we know. So to me, it falls flat for the same reasons that most shipping does: it feels arbitrary.

    I enjoyed reading it enough though, and it's short enough that I'd certainly recommend it (it's a lot LESS arbitrary that most shipping, to be fair). In the end, it's a least making an interesting and valuable point that is communicated well, even if the meaning and the events feel a little disconnected and unbelievable.

    I really wish people would quit using pony death as a quick-and-dirty way to force drama and crisis into a story. It's getting old REALLY fast.

  4. Reading your review Chris, it would appear for you that "Simply, Rarity" succeeds in substance (for the most part) but fails in style. In which case, I can't argue with the overall rating you gave it because both of them do matter equally. I don't agree with all your reasons, but I think they're valid, instead of nitpicking and biased. The only part in the review that does confuse me, Chris, is why you felt the "child molestation" stuff was handled way too causally. Is it how Rarity reacted to it in story (I can accept it in the narrative because she's too young to understand the implications), how Somber treated it as problem in society (I can understand the your reaction then but I took as just one part of the problems children in the street suffer through more than their better-off peers), or how it doesn't fit with the theme of 'what it means to be generous', or is there a different reason I'm not getting?

    Reading this "Simply, Rarity" again (last night), one new stylistic aspect that did bother me was some of the jargon that Rarity used (polysyllabic, slovenly) in her diary, words that I felt were way too advanced for someone her age (yes, she got lessons but still it's pushing it). Plus, this passage still confuses, "If we’d had money [father wouldn’t have (word not written for spoilers sake)] many troubles could have been avoided." It puzzles me because I don't quite get how Rarity would have figured out the parts in the brackets and there aren't enough hints elsewhere to indicate it was true. I have other problems, but I think I've stated enough on that front.

    I think that the commenters who say that Rarity couldn't have written this might have a small point because this was a reactionary piece to something in the show (like "What's eating Rainbow Dash" also by Somber). In this case, Rarity's character and what Somber didn't like about it. Personally, I share some of his complaints

    All in all, I still like this piece, quite a lot. Did I cry, no. But my eyes did water. For me, it successfully captures youthfully naïveté, crushing despair from poverty and loss, and the cruelty of the harsh world that exists under the sunny side of Equestria. It has a character that grows (one thing too many storytellers forget is that when their characters are confronted with big, dramatic events, their characters would change from the experience unless they are obstinate or ignorant). Finally, I felt Rarity was portrayed in a very plausible way, still remained true to the character in the show, and was pitiable while, for most part, steering clear of melodrama. The fact that I liked Rarity better after reading it the first time (she has almost always been and remains my least favorite of the main cast) is an accomplishment. So, I do recommend this fanfict (and "Thicker than Water" which Somber also wrote, because I felt it did Rainbow's and Fluttershy's backstories justice).

    I appreciate the overall review Chris, and for not hiding your feelings about this work, given it's popularity (it makes me more optimistic about future reviews for ficts like Fallout: Equestria or My Little Dashie). It's always good to read opposing opinions that are intelligent.

  5. If I may, in my defense? I wrote Simply Rarity back in July; my second attempt at writing and publishing a story ever. It wasn't a response fic but simply a way to try and make Rarity make sense to me. Was she some pretentious nobody who decided to show them all and become the fashion designer of Equestria? In that case why is she such an OCD fussbucket who talks and acts like a mare of much greater economic station? Was she really a member of high society that took it upon herself to become a designer? In that case, how does she end up all by herself in Ponyville running her own business? Simply Rarity was an attempt to answer those questions. And as I am a slut to drama, I chose the option of her being a pony who had fallen, learned what generosity truly means, and rises again the better for it.

    The show, sadly, has taken her another direction... unless Rarity really is adopted. Nopony's been able to explain to me why she speaks in a cultured north eastern accent and her parents speak like (and act) like they're from Bucklyn. Some day I might have to do a different fic exploring that.

    As to your reviews of the fic... the journal format was experimental. I hadn't seen it done in any of the other fics I'd come across and so I thought it would be a more effective method to tell her story rather than to get the digested version from Rarity. To actually write this in prose would have taken several chapters. As a journal, you get summations that you can assemble into a picture. I'm sorry you did not find it particularly effective.

    As to child molestation, I agree it's abhorrent. It also happens quite frequently to vulnerable children in the position Rarity and Unique are in. I'm sorry that the mention of it was intolerable, but given her father commits suicide, her mother abandons her, and her sister dies of exposure, and she effectively loses everything... well... It's not a happy story.

    1. Ahh, season you promised us a better Rarity, then apparently got drunk and just made a pretentiously shallow slut instead.

      Never mind.

      Anyway, as I said above, if you're going to do a dog-pile of crisis, I certainly have no problem with child abuse in it's various forms, and I liked that you just ploughed through it: neither overstating nor dodging the issue.

      I agree that Rarity's canon character is at best inconsistent, and at worst, superficial and trite. I guess wanting to change something you don't think makes any sense is a pretty good reason to write a fic. I mean, if that's your basis, then the 'not the Rarity from the show' complaint is pretty much a stamp of approval...yes?

      It's pretty much the reason I chose to write what I'm writing...

    2. I'm always glad to hear an author's thoughts. Thank you for taking the time to respond.

      I did want to clarify why I found the child molestation bit so jarring though, since several other commenters seem confused by my reaction. While I understand that your story also contains death and child abandonment, none of these are as jarring as sexual abuse.

      In essence, the reason for this is the same as the reason why it's easier to empathize with characters (in stories, movies, or whatever) who are murderers than with ones who are rapists. There's plenty of ways to justify killing someone, whether it's self-defense, punishment for a crime, shooting an enemy soldier during a war, or what have you. Even if none of these explanations apply to a particular murder, the point is that it's possible to make taking another person's life against their will seem like, if not a good thing, at least a lesser evil.

      Engaging in sexual activity with someone without their consent, on the other hand... there's never any moral justification for that. I'm not trying to say that raping someone is worse than murdering them, but what I am saying is that there's no such thing as "justifiable rape." As such, rape=evil in a way that murder simply doesn't.

      To bring it back to this story, Rarity's father killing herself and her mother abandoning her children are both "strong" events, but Rarity being molested is in a completely different category in terms of impact on the reader. Sexual molestation carries a lot more weight when used as a story device than death or abandonment do. I felt it moved the story to such a dark place that it began to lose its connection to the show. The actions of her parents, in contrast, were still relatable, albeit far darker than anything we'll ever see out of FiM.

      Again, thank you for sharing your thoughts, and for writing this story. Leaving aside the issues I raised in my review, I thought this story did an excellent job of showing what it really means to be generous.