|A Review byRebecca James|
|Lost in the Forest (2005) Sue Miller Before You Know Kindness (2005) Chris Bohjalian Jailbait (2005) Lesla Newman
The sun is setting earlier already, even though there are still three more weeks until Labor Day weekend and the start of school. This year, I will introduce myself to a hundred or so eleventh graders that first week of September and spend the next ten months trying to get them to think just a little bit more abstractly about events and philosophies and books they care about slightly less than, say, the selection of the next Supreme Court justice, which is to say not at all. I will jump on desks, squirt water, dance, sing, and debate the finer points of Tupac Shakur's "poetry" all in an attempt to capture even passing interest in The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible. I try not to take their blank stares too personally; it is clear to anyone who truly listens to teenagers or can recall even a few of his or her teenage years that there is much being sorted out and scrambled up in those brains of theirs. The three books I've read most recently each take a slightly different approach to the changes that happen during the brief period known as adolescence; each author finds a different level of permanence to the decisions made and a different scope of impact on those surrounding them.
Only one novel, Jailbait, is actually written to be read specifically by teens or young adults. The other two authors are well-known and talented contemporary writers. I've reviewed Bohjalian twice before, once for his Oprah-selected Midwives and most recently for Trans-sister Radio; both were exceptional explorations of the people involved in various capacities with a life-altering event. Miller is the author of While I Was Gone, also an Oprah selection, which, like her latest novel, deals with relationships and expectations.
Lesla Newman is the author of Heather Has Two Mommies; her purpose as a writer, according to her bio, is to "write stories for voices previously unheard." With Jailbait, she attempts to expose the thoughts and feelings of a teenage girl who develops a sexual relationship with a man twice her age. Newman develops a character who is authentically adolescent; her insecurities, relationships, and decisions are enough to make any adult reader cringe. Andrea's neurotic and clueless family are unaware how close they come to losing their daughter as she devotes herself to a manipulative and controlling drifter who enters her life during her sophomore year of high school.
"'Get dressed,' Frank says in his voice that lets me know he's done with me. I scramble to my feet and throw on my clothes, trying not to think about anything, because if I do, I'll cry."
Andrea develops her skewed perspective of normal relationship behavior from her interactions with Frank and his treatment of her. Although the eventual dissolution of the relationship may seem anti-climatic to many readers, the fact that it ends by Frank's choice, not Andrea's, offers readers a frightening idea of "what could have been." Ultimately, Andrea and readers both realize that her teenage mind sought affection and attention, and it was willing to take innumerable risks to get it, although she was lucky enough to walk away. The novel itself is simply written and probably best suited for parents, teachers, or young adults.
Miller's Lost in the Forest is a completely different take on a relationship between an older man and a teenage girl. The plotline is intended for adult readers, not teenagers, and is told from a variety of characters' perspectives, so it deals with other issues and events as well. The relationship is offered as a symptom of a larger familial problem, however, just as it was in Jailbait. In this case, the book opens with the reflections of the girl's father as he drives to pick up Daisy and her older sister from his ex-wife's home. When he arrives, the girls' three-year-old stepbrother climbs in the car, too, and we learn that there has been an accident. John, the girl's stepfather, has been killed.
What evolves over the course of the following year is a shifting in relationships, responsibilities, and identities. All of the members of the extended family created by Mark, his ex-wife Eva, the children, and their friends scrutinize each other and themselves, both past behavior and present. Daisy, who is entering adolescence at the time of the accident, is affected greatly by the loss of John, with whom she was very close. She navigates her developing body and beauty with the awkwardness of many teenagers, and, like Andrea, she looks outside the crisis of her family for someone to inform this development. Enter Duncan, the cruel, sarcastic, bitter, limping husband of one of Eva's friends. He seduces Daisy over the course of several months. Unlike Newman, however, Miller seems to recognize the effect of this mature man on Daisy's future desires in relationships. Grudginglyfor I do not mean to imply she condones the relationship at allMiller allows Daisy to realize that while Duncan took much from her, he also allowed her to see a world outside that of her small Napa Valley town. With the backdrop of her parents' infidelities and desires, the novel as a whole is as well-written and gripping as it is discomforting.
Finally, author Bohjalian offers an intense and compelling tale of a wealthy New England family's summer at ancestral lake home. Again, the main characters are two teenaged cousins, Willow and Charlotte, sent to the lake for the summer with their matriarchal grandmother, Nan. In an instant, however, their privileged lives and petty concerns change as Charlotte accidentally shoots her father in the shoulder. The book begins with the event itself, then revisits the days preceding it in detail. Bohjalian unveils the eccentricities of the two girls' parents and the problems surrounding their own searches for meaning within their harried lives. Approximately halfway through the novel, readers catch up to the shooting event and learn the circumstances surrounding Charlotte's behavior as well as the painful consequences and the difficult choices that will haunt her and further strain the relationships among the family members.
Of the three novels, Kindness was by far my favorite. Bojalian's characters are smart, believable, and perfectly flawed. The teenagers-and also the adults-were allowed to regress and mature several times throughout the story. There is a sense of resolution, both with the shooting and the family's broken connections, at the end that I did not necessarily find with the other two books. Although the scale of the adolescent choices differs in each of the novels, the common theme seems to be that there is a degree of vulnerability that interacts in dangerously uncertain ways during this stage of life, something I'll keep in mind as I enter the next school year.
Rebecca James, a high school English teacher in Allentown, Pennsylvania, divides her time between Allentown and Rehoboth.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 11 August 12, 2005