I have amassed everything from over a hundred of the popular Sweet Dreams books to a few that, while labeled "YA fiction," don’t quite fit into the typical YA romance genre I usually stuck to. All shall be revealed in due time….
And be warned… this is the Longest Blather in History.
And, oh yes, we'll get to each and every one of 'em....
Okay. Most of the singles had their YA Formula down pat. Girl likes popular boy, boy doesn’t know girl exists. Boy usually has another equally popular girlfriend (or a popular girl is also pursuing him). So. Girl and boy kinda maybe end up possibly together… but there’s a misunderstanding. Finally, of course, girl and boy live happily ever after (and girl is usually more popular in the process, if not directly by the boy liking her, than certainly tangential to it).
So let’s dive right on in and take a look at some examples of those YA Romance Clichés, shall we?
It Must Be Magic (Marian Woodruff): This Sweet Dreams book illustrates all the traditional elements of YA Romance:
So, Kerrie, the Class Brain, has a big ol’ juicy crush on popular Mike. And for her birthday, her best friends bid on him at the Junior Genie Week auction. Shazam! Kerrie has Mike as her own personal genie! Let the hijinx ensue, boys and girls….
Of course, Kerrie ends up coming out of her shell and attracting a few boys (including Mike) in the process, and showing everyone she’s "more than just a brain." There’re a few problems along the way, but never fear! By the big dance, Mike’s ditched his bitchy sort-of-girlfriend and he and Kerrie end up, naturally, lip-locked on the floor of the high school gym.
The thing that I hate most about so many of these books is the whole "smart girl" stereotype. You know, how the brainy girl has to ditch the whole sensible, capable, studious image, has to "loosen up" and "show everyone she can have fun"…? That means she has to get a bad grade for the first time in her life, ditch homework for something fun (usually involving Crush Boy), and/or give up control of something (a shared school project, a flat tire, a workplace situation, the school paper) in order to show that she "doesn’t always have to take charge"… like, in this case, Kerrie has put schoolwork on hold to think about Genie Activities. And especially, of course, she also has to undergo The Makeover… because in those drab, unstylish clothes she always wears, no one knows "how pretty she really is" until she "changes her image" (i.e., gets a cute new haircut, abandons the "plain" or "sensible" clothes she usually wears for something more feminine and romantic, puts on makeup for the first time in her life). So Kerrie, accordingly, has to get a perm, wear makeup, and start wearing prairie dresses (hey, it was 1982!) and flowery skirts and rose-colored things instead of jeans and T-shirts.
By doing this, the "smart, sensible" heroines always snag the cute, popular, happy-go-lucky (but never terribly smart) Crush Boy. But it’s funny (if by "funny" I mean "a completely humorless double-standard")… the Crush Boy never has to change HIS style of dressing or haircut or outlook on life or reputation in order to snag the Smart Girl. He never has to "change his image" to the whole school, or undergo some dramatic outward and inward Makeover. In fact, all he has to do (like Mike does in It Must Be Magic) is kinda promise he’ll "think about" his grades more, or about going to college… maybe he’ll spend a cursory night studying for a test or working on a school project. But no, he never has to prove himself by changing as dramatically or to the extent that the girl does.
That whole shtick is bad enough. But particularly problematic are the "fat" books….
The "fat" books are the Makeover Cliché to the extreme… all about girls who lose weight, and consequently discover how special and beautiful they are. In these books, the girls are always describing themselves as "Chubbettes" or "oven-stuffed roasters" or "gross" or "slobs"… and they’re almost always specifically mentioned at weighing 140 pounds. No, the 140 is the "fat" weight! Really! And they all get down to 110 pounds, because that is a "perfect" weight. Oh yeah. (And psychologists wonder why, between this and the Wakefield twins and ‘Teen magazine and countless movies and TV shows, our generation has grown up with severe eating disorders and body image problems?)
Ask Annie (Suzanne Rand): Another Sweet Dreams book… and, yes, one of the "fat" books. Predictably, the heroine, Annie, has emerged from her "fat" shell because "no boy would ever notice me as long as I was five feet, four inches tall and tipped the scales at 140—why should he?" Oh yeah, you fat fucking slob. Why should ANYONE notice you? In fact, you aren’t even fit to LIVE! Gee whiz.
So Annie has a crush on her best friend’s totally cute, popular brother, and wants to win his heart. And since losing 30 pounds isn’t nearly good enough, she (after he asks her opinion, mind) offers him advice on a problem he has with his parents. It works. So Tim, the Cute Boy, has a pal of his ask her for advice. It works some more. And Annie starts gaining self-confidence as a result.
What’s the problem? Why, all the boys now see Annie as a buddy… one of the guys! Oh no! She’ll NEVER get a date to the (YA Cliché Alert!) Soph Hop if she’s pals with boys! Thankfully, she has her best friend to set her straight [I guess giving advice to a girl friend is okay!]:
Well. How dare Judy Carney not be interested in boys and makeup and high heels? How dare she not be "feminine"? SHE certainly won’t have a date to the Soph Hop! Why, she’s abnormal, not a real girl, not mature! She’ll grow up to be, like, a mechanic and’ll NEVER get married and have a family! Ironic that Kathy chews Annie out because she – Annie, that is – isn’t "being herself" by giving out advice and being friends with the boys, yet they rip Judy Carney for being HERself, because she won’t have a date for the big dance.
So now Annie has to do penance for her sins by going around and saying to the guys "I’m not qualified to give advice" because "I’ve never gone steady" … so obviously she can’t tell a boy what she thinks about his relationship with his girlfriend… and instead has to sigh all earnestly "I’d give anything to have a steady relationship like you two" and all that….
There’re a few slightly redeeming moments in this book. One, when a single friend of Annie’s tells her that "there’s a huge difference between being all alone and not having a boyfriend" and "there’s more to life than boys!" and "if boys don’t ask you out, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you!" And two, when Annie finally gets a spine and tells Cute Boy Tim that she doesn’t particularly like Marcy, his current sort-of girlfriend. But the overwhelming message is still "don’t act like a know-it-all" and "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" and "looking good (i.e. thin) = feeling good."
Spotlight on Love (Nancy Pines): This one goes hand-in-hand with Ask Annie as a Sweet Dreams "fat" book. I guess this one is marginally better than Ask Annie, if only because Callie loses weight in order to further her acting career and be up for more than just the "fat girl" or "funny girl" roles (Don’t worry! She learns that the character parts are better than the pretty heroine parts in the end)… and because her "butterball" weight isn’t mentioned immediately on Page 1. But yeah, Callie also "tipped the scales" at 144 lbs. And yeah, Callie’s got a crush, too… on David, the dreamy boy who gets all the leads in the school musicals, so her motivation to get the romantic heroine role in South Pacific is at least in part because she wants to act opposite David.
You know, I still feel gypped that my high school never did anything kewl like school musicals. Well, my freshman year we tried to put on "Gidget Goes Hawaiian" but rehearsals kinda petered out because, once the play was cast, that would’ve only left about 30 people left in the school to actually WATCH it. And then the administration thought that any play performed should have a Christian message. Oh yeah. One of the many down-sides to going to a religious school smaller than the average preschool….
Anyway, Spotlight on Love does the usual dealie: girl likes boy, boy likes girl, girl and boy have a misunderstanding because girl thinks boy likes another girl and boy thinks girl likes another boy, and all that stuff, before Callie and David end up all happily together at the end. But there was one part that always cracked me up with this book…. Remember the aforementioned Makeover Scene? Well, on Callie’s first date with David, she decides she looks too dull, and does something she’s never done before (except, I guess, for the stage)… she puts on makeup!
Yes, Callie’s dramatic makeover consists of applying mascara.
Dreams Can Come True (Jane Claypool Miner): Yet another "fat" book, but this time it’s a Wildfire one, not Sweet Dreams. Eleanor was also a whoppin’ fat-ass at 140 pounds, and loses the requisite 30 pounds to become "beautiful" and "a glamorous size 10" (ah, the 80s)… her metamorphosis coinciding with a move from Ohio to exciting Redondo Beach, California (*snicker*).
What stands out to me most about this book is how unlikable Eleanor – or "Ellynne," as she renames herself – is. She thinks only of her clothes and being popular, she is opportunistic and surface-oriented, and she ain’t the least bit interesting. She makes a how-to-be-popular list (another familiar YA Cliché) with things like "New Attitude!" and "New Interests!" … which translates as merely being enthusiastic about and interested in the things the popular kids are. She decides to try out for cheerleading… not because she’s interested in it, but because it is, of course, the ticket to popularity. And all the people who tell her she’s going to make it say so not because she’s talented or hard-working or has a lot of school spirit or anything… it’s because she’s beautiful, blonde and "classy."
And (naturally) she falls madly in crush with Kip, the (naturally) totally handsome, totally nice, totally (naturally) football player. And even though he has a girlfriend, Ellynne pursues Kip because 1) true love knows no bounds, 2) she’s becoming stronger and more confident, and 3) his girlfriend is kinda a bitch anyway, so that gives her leave. Oh yeah. Teens need to hear that going for a taken guy just ‘cos you think he’s cute and special and don’t like his current girlfriend = "confidence" and "strength" and "feminism"….
Books like this usually end with the girl realizing that popularity isn’t everything and she need to be herself (see The Two of Us, below), blah blah blah, but Dreams Can Come True somehow never gets quite to that point. Yeah, Ellynne doesn’t make cheerleading, but the consolation that she now has a wonderful new boyfriend and all these great new friends only (to me) solidified her superficiality.
About the only time Ellynne seems to be her own person, an individual, is the scene where she and Kip (after a boring movie date) discover they both like old blues and jazz music. The interest is almost uncharacteristic of the Ellynne presented in the book, but still…. She and Kip discuss Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker, Count Basie, Ida Mae Cox… and when I first read this book, this was before I’d heard of any of those artists. The names kinda stuck in my head, and in later years, when I first started dabbling in early blues and jazz music myself, I knew of few things other than Billie Holiday to look for….
Speaking of cheerleading….
Cute is a Four-Letter-Word (Stella Pevsner): This book (less of a "YA Romance" and more of a Teen Problem Novel, I guess) was memorable not because of what happened, but what didn’t happen. The beginning of it was attractive enough to me when I first read it in Jr. High. Clara Conrad, after practicing cartwheels for several weeks (and with the help of a best friend who quit the squad), makes the cheerleading team… then is elected captain. A few make-up tips (from the same friend), and she’s considered one of the cutest girls in school. The hottie on the basketball team (again, that best friend’s ex) starts flirting with her. Man, if that wasn’t enough to fuel MY pathetic teenage dreams of popularity… I mean, if it could happen to Clara with a few careful lists (this time, they’re "Popularity Musts!") and cartwheel practices, why not me?
Despite all this, Clara’s a fairly likable character as she tries to figure out how to be A Somebody and what she really wants. But it seems as though, throughout the book, everything that Clara (and, accordingly, the reader) plans, works for and/or looks forward to gets screwed up. Her boyfriend almost kisses her… but they’re interrupted. She and the Cute Boy plan to go to the big holiday dance… but she has to go visit her sister for Thanksgiving instead. She plans a huge slumber party for all her new cheerleader friends, all the popular girls… but gets the flu and spends the entire party in the bathroom (all the better to overhear the catty things the other girls say about her). She practices and practices the big Pom Pon routine for the big half-time show at the big game… but gets called away by an emergency phone call from the little neighbor boy (which, of course, turns out to be a false alarm) and barely makes it back to the gym in time to see the Other Girl leading the squad on to glory. Build up… let down… build up… let down. Of course, Clara realizes what’s REALLY important (not popularity, not cheerleading, not the dumb cute boy), but, like I cared about THAT at age thirteen….
Growing Up in a Hurry (Winifred Madison): Speaking of books I read in Jr. Hi…. This was one of THE books that got passed around the school in 7th Grade. It was about (shhh!) sex… and a girl that has an abortion. Karen, the main character, was somewhat anachronistic (the book was published in 1973), but intrigued me still. She was painfully shy… the kind of shy I wanted to be. She could go a whole day without talking to anyone, without anyone talking to her… whereas I (despite being shy and uncomfortable) always ended up blurting some stupid crack to cover up or snarkily fending off the daily tormentings of my classmates. Karen, despite her physical description of herself as a "round-faced Svenska with Shredded Wheat hair" and a stutter, was as dainty to me as the flute she played, (whereas I was more like a kazoo, or one of those New Year’s Eve noisemaker things). I related to her anxieties and her insecurities… Karen had two successful sisters and an ambitious mother and never felt good enough in comparison. She was also obsessed by all things Japanese because they seemed to be everything she wasn’t. And she expressed herself through her flute….
Anyway, Karen starts to (YA Cliché Alert!) come out of her shell a little when Steve (a Japanese hippie-type boy) asks her out. But frankly… I never understood what was so great about Steve when I first read the book, other than the fact that he paid attention to Karen. They had nothing in common (she hates his music – no small thing when you consider music is her life)… he was all defensive about his Japanese parents... he was wrapped up in his plans for the future. And everything he did seemed incredibly dorky and contrived to me.
For some reason, that whole conversation just really annoyed the shit out of me when I first read it. Steve just seemed like such a patronizing dolt. But that was nothing compared to The Big Scene… you know… the SEX part! I mean, I’d read Forever only a scant few months before, and was all geared up after "Ralph" and all that, but this…? Karen still seemed like an overly naïve idiot and Steve like a sweet-talkin’ dink.
I mean, who would say that? Even in 1973? And after Forever, man, what a disappointing "naughty" sex scene!
Anyway, Karen is too shy and naïve (and *ahem* irresponsible!!! *ahem*) to go get birth control, so it’s no surprise that she’s pregnant a few months later. She and Steve are drifting apart already, so, like with most Books About Sex and Teen Pregnancy, the missed period signals the inevitable end of their relationship. Karen flounders a bit, then tells her mommy, and mommy takes control and whisks her off to have an abortion. I always thought that the book’s title, Growing Up in a Hurry referred to having sex… or at the very least, dealing with pregnancy. But Karen doesn’t deal with anything, really. I think her "growing up" doesn’t start until the abortion – and the book – is over.
Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones (Ann Head): Another teen pregnancy novel, published in 1968, this book is a scream if only for its dazzling archaism.
My favorite YA author (who’s worthy of a whole Blather of her own… perhaps someday….), Norma Klein, wrote a book twenty years later about teen pregnancy called Beginner’s Love. In it, the pregnant girl says:
Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones is just the book she’s talking about.
July and Bo Jo (yes, those are really their names… July and Bo Jo) have sex only once, and only because someone has spiked the punch at a school dance with champagne so therefore they had absolutely no control over anything. Yeah, I guess this set the stage for every After School Special for the next 2 generations. Not that I’m saying you can’t get pregnant after having sex only once. You can. I did. It happens. But losing all control because of punch spiked with champagne-
Anyway, this book depressed the hell out of me, not for the whole pregnancy thing, but for the revelation of how limited young women’s lives were (from the book’s point of view). And this was the world that my mom grew up and "came of age" in. Jeepers. When July discovers she’s pregnant and she and Bo Jo "have" to get married, that’s it. She’s done. She says as much: she can never consider going on with school, going to college, having a career, doing or being anything other than a wife or mother. None of her girl friends have goals other than finding the right guy and getting married (but, respectably, AFTER college). That’s all there is.
The other thing that bugged me is the whole "we HAVE to get married!" dealie, yadda yadda, because there’s going to be a baby thing, and… then the baby dies. It’s almost like those books where the main character is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, and goes around making all these life changes and amendments based on that… and then on the last page, there’s the scene where the doctor says "Ooops, we make a mistake. You just have a bad cold" or something. Or two people who shouldn’t’ve gotten married do so, and one partner unexpectedly dies within the first year or so, which, I guess, "validates" the bad marriage in some way. I mean, it kinda lets you off the hook from being responsible, dealing with the concrete results of something. And it just pisses me off, because real life rarely happens like this… that getting-pregnant-the-only-time-you-have-sex thing is FAR more probable!
But anyway, then July follows Bo Jo to State U., where his football scholarship is for, and "supports" him with a dinky secretarial job. Well, she got to take an Elizabethan Drama class as a present from her parents, and she’ll have "a couple credits if I ever need them." And she calls this a "happy ending" to their story. Gee. Lucky her.
Unlike some of the other books here, I don’t have to speculate about what might’ve happened in the future. We’ve already seen how this story pans out: remember that TV show One Day at a Time…?
Class Ring (Josephine Wunsch): Another Wildfire gem. Sherry and Kent have been Together Forever… and are practically engaged, since Sherry wears Kent’s class ring… and they’re going to get married and live happily ever after- well, until the New Girl shows up and wreaks havoc on their lives and their relationship. Oh yeah.
Remember, Sherry and Kent (much like teen-aged Dwanollah and DumbAss) are the PERFECT couple. They belong together. All their friends think so. Even their parents think so. And so, instead of concentrating on education or thinking about bettering herself as an individual, Sherry (much like dorky teen-aged [and not-so-teen-aged] Dwanollah) is all wrapped up in her dreams of marriage… totally old-fangled marriage dreams, too, considering that this book was published in 1983, not 1953. But then again, Sherry’s a small-town girl. Anyway, she and Kent are going to get married as soon as they’ve graduated, and’ll build a little cabin on her parents’ property, and she’ll inherit her grandmother’s china and Kent will work at his dad’s car shop and she’ll keep house in their little cabin and-
With the exception of the whole "screw college!" bit, this is exactly how stupid I was when I was seventeen, too. I wanted to be the first of all my friends to get married, and we’d have all our bestest pals for attendants (the boyfriends and girlfriends carefully paired up) and we’d have a perfect little apartment together that I’d decorate with such care in that kernifty peach-and-turquoise motif and I’d cook us amazing dinners every night and have friends over for parties and we’d be together forever-
Yeah, so this book reminded me of some of my own Issues.
Anyway. Sherry, Sherry’s parents and Sherry’s friends all distrust That New Girl, Jill and don’t want to include her in things because she’s Different, an Outsider. The town where the book is set, Pineridge, is more exclusive and unwelcoming than, like, the Daughters of the American Revolution or something. No one points out anything CONCRETE about Jill that is untrustworthy… instead, the author describes her differences compared to the other kids at Pineridge: Jill’s from England, has short "pixie" hair, has divorced parents, is jolly, likes adventure…. I mean, she does some really sneaky and bad things in the book: cracking up Sherry’s dad’s car, for one, and especially, making a play for Kent, for another. She’s clearly insecure and a grand-scale manipulator. But before we actually see any of her "reckless" behavior, Jill’s already pegged as trouble because she’s "a newcomer" and "odd-girl-out," as per Sherry’s friends… or because Jill wants to hang-glide, whereas sensible Sherry doesn’t like heights… or because she’s "lived all over," is "rootless" in Sherry’s opinion, compared to Sherry, whose family has lived in Pineridge for, like, 5 generations… or because, just by physical description, she’s unconventional compared to the Pineridge girls….
And Jill isn’t the only unfavorable character in the book… her grandmother also meets with Sherry’s disapproval… and thus We-the-Readers’re meant to disapprove of Gam too. But really, Gam’s the most interesting character in the whole book.
Later in the book, Jill mentions to Sherry that Gam’s
I mean, what kind of a boring, elitist, white-bread little prig is Sherry? Limiting herself to "pleasant" places and "nice" experiences? Judgmental of anything and everything that’s slightly "different" than what she’s used to? (Yes, I know, even more Previous Dwanollah Issues.) And see, this is the type of thing that’s supposed to make We-the-Reader think Jill and Gam are "bad"… but really, innt Gam kewl?
What I found most problematic about this book, though, was how Sherry and Kent were portrayed as completely passive in the face of Jill’s pursuits of Kent. Kent suddenly stops calling Sherry and hanging around and sitting next to her at Block Club, and starts doing all that stuff with Jill instead… and Sherry says and does nothing. No "Hey, Kent, why are you suddenly acting like you’re Jill’s boyfriend and ignoring me? Doncha think that’s kinda crappy?" No "Hey, Jill, it’s pretty obvious you’re flirting like mad with my boyfriend, and that’s a really shitty thing for one friend to do to another." None of her friends in this close-knit group of perfectly-matched-up six girls and six boys says "Hey, Kent, why’re you being such a dick?" And Kent, of course, is portrayed as entirely powerless: "Kent rubbed his palms together in a gesture of despair…. ‘My feelings for her have nothing to do with my feelings for you. She’s got me all mixed up. Most of the time I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.’" In fact, Kent’s kinda like a big, dumb dog, following the one who pets him the most or says "here, boy!" the loudest or gives him the most Snausages. Sherry – heck, everyone in their group – seems to think Kent doesn’t have any control over his actions; why, Sherry even considers that Kent is just "bewitched," "hypnotized" by Jill. And that she – Sherry – only has to tough it out until Jill gets ready to leave Pineridge for Singapore at the end of the school year, because then Kent will be released from this preeminent bondage….
This "Secret Place" is the spot in the woods where they’re going to build their little cabin, btw….
So Sherry trots off to meet Kent, who has been emancipated from the spell of evil Jill and can now think and function again- Or wait! Maybe not!
And he, of course, didn’t tell Jill to shove it. Because Jill has him "all worked up." Riiight.
I mean, damn! Teen girls as dumb as I was DON’T need to be constantly bashed with the idea that boys are just helpless creatures who can’t possibly be held responsible for their actions. "It just happened" and "But I love him!" and "You know deep down he really loves you" and "I just got confused!" have caused as much trouble for adolescent girls as the Wakefield twins and their "perfect size six figures"…. What teen-age girl needs to be constantly presented with the sophistry that girlfriends/wives are replacement mommies, existing to take care of their men, to love them no matter what, to suffer their hapless foibles because they’re nothing more than little boys in long pants and can’t HELP being stupid sometimes?!
Yeah. More Previous Dwanollah Issues. So?
At least Sherry finally gets a clue at the end of the book (thanks to a tongue-lashing from the aforementioned Miss Hatcher, the school principal):
Why didn’t I have someone to tell me this when I was seventeen? I mean, granted, I actually had educational goals, and I didn’t want to marry right out of high school (I was willing to wait until I was twenty or twenty-one), but still… I was "just seventeen and no options" too. I was unwilling to live, go to school, or pursue anything that was more than, like, a twenty-mile radius from home… and DumbAss. And I was more than willing to become DumbAss’s replacement mommy, if that meant I got to be Mrs. DumbAss in the bargain. Because I was in looooove with him. And we belonged together. We were the Perfect Couple. All our friends said so.
But back to the book. As Miss Hatcher predicts, Kent does come crawling back mere days later, saying charming things [ah, shades of DumbAss] like "Don’t you think after all the years we’ve gone together, you owe me just a few minutes?" and "now that [Jill’s] gone, I can honestly say I hardly remember what she even looked like." And when Sherry wants to know why he gave Jill Sherry’s ring, "Kent frowned and for a moment he looked like a little boy lost in the deep woods with no way out. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’" Thankfully, Sherry isn’t drooling at the sound of the ringing bell anymore. And when she tells Kent that, no, she won’t marry him and yes, she’s going away to the university, he [all DumbAss-like] says "No, Sherry. It’s too big" and "You’d expect me to wait four years? Isn’t that asking a lot?" But, hip hip hooray, Sherry says "I don’t expect anything from you, Kent. I’m just telling you what I’m doing."
Why couldn’t I say something like this when I was seventeen? Or nineteen? Or twenty-two? Or-
Despite this, though, I still kinda got the feeling that Sherry would go away to college, sure… but would end up marrying the Other Local Boy Who Had a Crush on Her (and who’d also be going to the university) as soon as they graduated college, in a big ceremony with all their Pineridge friends, and would set up house on The Ridge with her grandmother’s china and-
The Two of Us (Janet Quin-Harkin): This was a Sweet Dreams book that takes that Makeover Cliché to an all new level. Stephanie doesn’t just get a makeover… she becomes a whole new person, her fictitious twin sister "Stormy." You heard right… Steph screws up at her new school and the popular crowd – and the Cute Popular Boy – end up hating her. So she goes away for a weekend to visit her best friend in New York, and comes back completely made over… and convinces the kids at school that she’s Stephanie’s twin, Stormy, who’s a rock star and has been living in London, but is playing a switcheroo game to hang out in a suburban high school.
Yeah, it’s an unbelievable premise, but the book actually plays with that notion a little. Just a little.
Anyway, of course Stormy’s a big hit, and gets to be friends with the popular girls and snags the popular guy… but discovers (YA Cliché Twist Alert!) that they aren’t all that wonderful… and she’d really rather be hanging out with unpopular Laurie and that shy boy, Charles, instead.
But what’s stunning about this book are the cultural references. Bless ol’ Janet Quin-Harkin, she tried, she really did…. Stephanie’s best friend gives her an "Ozzie Osmond" [sic] T-shirt… which gives me this really frightening image of Ozzy, Ricky Nelson’s father, and Donny and Co. all blended together…. And at the time I first read this book, I found it unbelievable that the same girl could have crushes on Rick Springfield and Joe Elliot within a 2-month period. I mean, c’mon! Rick was SO early ’83 and Joe was SO early ’84 (and at age 14, that gap seemed immeasurable, mind)! Plus, to say "Joe Elliot is touring" as if he was a solo performer and not the lead singer of Def Leppard…? Of course, I still get a kick out of the descriptions of miniskirts, feathered hair, this wild "new-wave" guy with extra-short hair and tight black jeans, stonewashed denims, pink ankle-boots- Ah, such fond memories of the 80s! I also liked that Stephanie-Stormy wore a tux, not a fancy dress, to the (YA Cliché Alert!) Big Homecoming Dance….
Phone Calls (Ann Reit): I don’t know why, but this was one of my favorite books when I was in 9th grade. I never owned it then, but a friend of mine did, and every time I went over to her house, I’d filch it and re-read it. She got rid of it after a few years, and I thought I’d never see it again… well, until one of my Used Book Store Forays about two years ago….
I always thought the girl on the cover of Phone Calls was really dorky looking...
Anyhow, this book has one of the hokiest, most contrived plots… but it actually has a few glimmers of… something mixed in there. But first….
Juliet, like the Typical YA heroine, is smart, sensible, pretty but not flashy-gorgeous, has several boy friends but no boyfriend. And, you got it, she has a crush on Timothy, the cutest, most popular boy in school.
I’m getting really sick of this whole Internal Qualities Inferred By External Good Looks bullshit. And it being rationalized by "chemistry."
As the book goes on, we never see that Timothy and Juli have anything in common: Juli is smart, Tim is not. Juli writes poetry, Tim has no interest in poetry. Juli loves analyzing people and behavior, Tim doesn’t even think of such things. Juli likes museums and ambitious bike rides and is interested in environmental issues and reads voraciously, Tim… well, actually, we never really find out what Tim DOES like or DOES do. Juli never tells us or shows us anything about Tim except that he’s "nice" and "at ease with people" and charismatic and charming. And she feels "chemical" about him. *sigh*
Juliet is a well-developed and interesting character, but the supporting characters are one- or two-dimensional at best by comparison. Juliet’s boy friends, for example, are less actual characters and more illustrations of one particular facet of Juliet… and merely serve as potential love interests. Mike exists solely for Juli to go bike-riding and play basketball with… and to later develop a crush on her. Cliff exists solely for Juli to go to psychology lectures and foreign films with… and to later develop a crush on her. Oliver exists solely for Juli to discuss poetry with- wait, make that "discuss poetry at" because even though we hear that Oliver writes poetry, all he does is ask Juliet about her writing and praise it… and of course, develops a crush on her.
With all of this potential crushing, what happens? We-e-ell, one day, Juliet gets a phone call. And it’s a deep male voice quoting lines from Romeo and Juliet to her and telling her he loves her! But see, in 1983, to a high-school girl, this wasn’t cowardly or stalker-like behavior… this wasn’t harassment or manipulation… this was ROMANCE, guys! And accordingly, Juliet doesn’t freak out about some guy stalking her or run to tell her mom or anything like that… instead, she starts wondering who this mystery caller could be. Why, it could be anyone… Mike… Cliff… Oliver… that shy boy in English class… that cute checker at the grocery store… that popular boy who asks her to a party… her best friend’s father- Okay, so I made up that last one. But seriously, somehow Juli "just knows" her caller is serious and "a nice person" because of something in his voice. Really. No one thinks "hey, I wonder if this is some scuzzy pedophile with a teen girl fetish" or "you know, anonymous phone calls are really inappropriate!" I guess it isn’t as bad as Polly in The Mystery Kiss who actually fell in love with the anonymous guy, but still….
Anyway, with all this lover-like phone calling, what happens then? Why, of COURSE sensible, baggy-jeans-wearing, studious Juliet starts becoming more aware of her feminine self… and undergoes The Makeover! First she buys not a sensible beige sweater, but a "romantic" pink angora one. Then she starts letting her sensible short hair grow out. Then it’s jewelry and lip gloss. And then she goes to the local department store to pick out newer, more attractive elements to her wardrobe… ta da! The Big Makeover Scene!
At least Phone Calls deals a little bit with the question that immediately springs to mind after this whole situation:
So Juliet finally has "proof" that she’s attractive… because of Romeo’s phone calls.
Okay. Let’s look at that theory, because I really hung onto it back when I was 14 and longing for a boyfriend…. Boys liking you = proof that you’re attractive, "lovable," in my 9th Grade Diary wordage. Male attention (on that male’s terms) = proof that you’re attractive. Uh huh. Let me tell y’all a story about a girl in one of my classes in college. A boy who was, like, the friend of a friend or something was stalking her, because he’d seen her picture and developed a crush on her. He started sending her e-mail, telling her how beautiful and sexy she was. It got more explicit, and more frequent… dozens of letters a day. She blocked his e-mail address and changed hers. He somehow found out her dorm address, and started sending letters and cards and flowers there. He hadn’t threatened her, but she was making friends and the school administration aware of the situation. We talked about it one day before class; she’d just gotten another card and more flowers. She talked for several minutes about how scared she was that he’d found out so much personal information about her, and how she was freaked by the whole situation. "Although," she mused, "I guess it is pretty flattering, too, that he likes me so much…." Um. So sexual harassment = proof that you are attractive and desirable.
It’s perspective like this, in Phone Calls, that helps promote the stereotypes which lead girls like the one in my class to think, somehow, stalking = flattering attention.
But one thing that’s really kewl about this book is that Juliet realizes the phone calls and Romeo and all that are disputable… and she does something about it in an assertive way:
I think the main reason why I liked this book, despite its numerous shortcomings, is that Juliet – despite doing so many of the Typical YA Novel things – somehow seemed more real, deeper, more interesting than a lot of the Typical YA Novel Heroines. Juliet can be insecure, but ultimately she’s assertive about things; for instance, she tells Tim that she’s not about to give up her friendships with Oliver, Cliff or Mike for him. Juliet’s never told (implicitly or overtly) to be or act "less smart"…in fact, everyone – girls, boys, parents, siblings – really admire her for her intelligence and for the fact that she’s a poet. Juliet’s smart, and it’s actually backed up in the book other than We-the-Readers just hearing that she gets good grades in school (unlike, say, previously mentioned heroines like Kerrie and Ellynne and Sherry). She’s intellectual in the ways I wished I’d been back in high school, reading poetry and John Irving books and going to psychology lectures and having intelligent discussions with people about environmental issues and museum exhibits. She’s well-rounded; she equally loves feminist poetry and bowling and romantic movies and a good game of basketball.
I think Juliet’s poetry is the most interesting aspect about her… and what I found most appealing, too, when I used to re-read the book ‘way back when. She writes sonnets, not Typical Teen Free Verse. She quotes lines from Dickinson (incidentally, one of my favorite poets), really thinking about what they mean, in general and to her:
"The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
she says once, when thinking about the effects of her father’s death on her family. Another time, when Oliver is inspecting her bookshelves, he says "Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Dickinson, Millay. No men, just women. How come? Got something against men poets?" And Juliet says, "women say something to me that I can connect with more." I don’t agree, but it’s an interesting thought. And, like with the blues artists in Dreams Can Come True, the listing off of the poets stayed in my head, and I tried looking up a few of them. I didn’t "get" Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath when I was 14, of course, but it stuck.
The only thing I didn’t like re: poets and poetry, when I re-read the book, is that Juli does One of My Biggest Pet Peeves: she calls Emily Dickinson "Emily." "I thought you were talking about a friend or something," her sister says. "I was. She’s my friend," Juliet responds. No, no, no, no, NO! I understand Emily Dickinson wrote amazingly powerful things that, among other things, burgeoning teen girls feel they can relate to. But she is not a chum, a pal, a friend, a sistah! She is not "Emily"! She’s, respectfully, "Dickinson"! I remember fondly a poetry class I took at Claremont with an excellent, but rather temperamental, professor. We came to the class on Dickinson, and, while sitting at his desk, he suddenly looked up and scowled at the class. "Sit up! Pay attention!" he barked, getting up and stomping around. "You… take off that hat! Now! We’re reading Dickinson today… show some respect! Geez!" It was a beautiful moment.
There was another bit that was actually troublingly inaccurate in the book, and I feel compelled to point it out. Juliet is thinking about college:
Not "I need to make a living, so…." No. A journalism program is the closest thing to majoring in poetry?! Um, I don’t think so! Ann Reit didn’t know about university creative writing programs? Hello? Really?
Oh, and, of course, the Mystery Phone Caller Romeo turns out to be Tim. I like to think that Juliet would go out with him for about six months before realizing he was, albeit cute and charming, completely boring and incompatible with her. And then she’d head off to college, take creative writing classes and join up with an environmental group and take tours of various museums and grow as an individual… and meet up with boys who’re more up to her intellectual speed in the process. But if so, they’re just contingent. So there.
Class Pictures (Marilyn Sachs): Marilyn Sachs wrote all sorts of stuff… YA stuff, 8-10 stuff, stuff that seemed horribly dated and old-fashioned to me (Amy and Laura), and stuff, like Class Pictures, that felt contemporary and immediate when I first read it in 9th grade.
The premise of the book is simple… and could be done in a hopelessly hokey and contrived way: on the brink of high school graduation, Pat remembers her friendship with Lolly – and examines her own "coming of age" process – via their class pictures, from kindergarten on. When they were young, Pat was the best-liked girl in school, and Lolly was the shy fat kid whom everyone hated. By the time they’d hit high school, Lolly had become beautiful and sought-after, while Pat was academically brilliant but a left-out loner. See? It SOUNDS contrived and hokey. But really, Sachs’ portrayal of Pat (and Lolly and their families and Mr. and Mrs. Evans) is honest, unique, sometimes painful, and entirely absorbing. Qualities and characteristics could easily fall into stereotyping – like Pat as "class brain" and Lolly as "class beauty" – but they don’t.
Actually, the only character who I had trouble with was Pat’s Grandma. Pat, her two little brothers and her mother all live together with Grandma, and because Mom isn’t exactly the mothering type, Grandma is the one who’s there for Pat growing up. In the beginning of the book, Grandma is a cantankerous, bullying, but gruffly loving woman who manages to keep a lid on all the chaos in the house. But by the time Pat is in sixth grade, Grandma is being courted by a family friend, and turns into someone very different. Yeah, it’s meant to be problematic for Pat, too, but it never quite rang true to me… because, once she’s married, Grandma disappears from the entire book… even though she’s supposed to be living nearby! I mean, as much as Grandma supposedly loved and took care of everyone, how come there’s not even a cursory mention of her later on? I know, I know, Grandma not being there is an important element for Pat, too, but still….
It was also slightly questionable (or skeevy?) that Pat would maintain such a close relationship with her 3rd grade male teacher, but I guess I’m just cynical that way. It still seems believable in the telling, though, I’ll give it that.
This is a "coming of age" novel in the true sense; not only do you see Pat come of age, but you many of the other characters – Lolly, Mr. Evans, Grandma – grow up and into themselves as individuals as well throughout the course of the book. Class Pictures isn’t in print any more, but I see it often at used bookstores; grab a copy if you see it.
Baby Sister (Marilyn Sachs): On the other hand, there’s Baby Sister. This book on a par with Class Pictures, in that it’s well written, and the characters are unique and don’t fall easily into cliché.
But the plot?
I didn’t read Baby Sister until I was in my early 20s, and when I finished it, I thought surely it must be a satire…? If it is, it’s a BRILLIANT satire, man! But if not… well then, it’s possibly rilly fukt up! Maybe if you read it quickly, or read it as a teen, it wouldn’t seem so… so… so! But to me, there were so many just plain WEIRD things that jumped out at me. I’ve always wanted to assign this book to a writing and/or lit class, just to see what the responses to it would be. Yes, I have thought about this book that much! I know. Or maybe I’m the only one who sees anything odd in it….
So. Penny idolizes her older sister Cass. Cass is brilliant, beautiful (but not in the usual sense… Penny’s often noting Cass’s "greenish-yellow" unwashed hair, her sloppy clothes, her full figure. I suppose Cass was "grunge" way before we ever knew what "grunge" was. And Cass’s sloppiness is supposed to be a physical manifestation of her character flaws, but more on that later….), ambitious… and has Gary, "the most gorgeous boyfriend in the world" according to Penny. In comparison – heck, even without comparison to Cass – Penny is a Nothing. She’s dull, doesn’t try at school, spends her time watching TV, hates reading, has only one or two friends throughout the course of the book, has no goals for the future…. She keeps her room clean almost compulsively … and mentally keeps cleaning up Cass’s room, too. The only exciting thing Penny does is steal her sister’s diary to read about Cass’s goings-on and dream of being like her.
But despite the fact that Penny idolizes Cass so much, she also finds a great deal of fault with her. I mean, from the first page of the book, Penny is not only telling We-the-Readers how much she admires Cass for being Cass, she’s also criticizing her for the same reason. For example, she disapproves of Cass’s wild sloppiness, even as she at the same time envies Cass’s lack of concern about how neat her room is or whether or not a shirt has a stain on it.
Penny especially objects to Cass’s treatment of Gary; Penny thinks that instead of spending so much time selfishly wrapped up in her studies, Cass should be spending more time with Gary, because Gary is so wonderful. Really.
In fact, Penny’s practically obsessed with the idea of Cass and Gary getting married. Almost every conversation she has with her sister includes (or concludes with) Penny telling Cass she should marry Gary.
But what’s so great about Gary…?
I don’t know.
What We-the-Readers first find out about him is that he’s good-looking; when Penny talks or thinks about Gary, all she mentions is how "gorgeous" he is… his golden-blond hair, his straight white teeth, his blue eyes that slant when he smiles. She most often calls him "wonderful"… but again, the "wonderfulness" only clarified by external details.
The second thing We-the-Readers find out about Gary is that he is pretty much pussy-whipped by Cass. They’ve been going together for years, and every time she’s broken up with him, he waits for her to "come back" to him. He apologizes to her without knowing what he’s apologizing for. He spends all his time waiting around for Cass to notice him, spend time with him. He’s done this since they were in grade school. Even Penny is surprised that Gary has managed to earn a black-belt in judo, because she doesn’t know when he finds time for lessons because he "spends all his time waiting around for Cass."
So Penny thinks Gary’s wonderful because he’s "the most gorgeous boyfriend in the world"… but what does Cass think? From her diary [and Cass’s diary is a great device, giving us undiluted Cass-ness, Cass’s point of view about the people we only see otherwise through Penny’s eyes… including Penny herself], we discover that, while the word "sex" is never used, Cass thinks a lot of Gary’s, um, physical charms and abilities, but not much else:
Even Cass knows she’s not great for Gary and doesn’t treat him well… but she also doesn’t really lead him on. She never gives him any reason to believe she wants to marry him someday, or even date him after high school. If she’s cruel, she’s also honest with him. And if Cass is brutally honest, demanding and hard on other people, she’s clearly equally as hard on herself… perhaps more so.
Cass is amazingly self-aware. We-the-Readers are (perhaps) meant to see Cass as totally selfish (especially in her relationship with Gary), but her diary gives us a different perspective of her:
And we’re meant to see it as a bad thing that Cass won’t marry Gary and "make him happy" (in Penny’s oft-used words) instead of acting on ambitions like these? Don’t get me wrong… Cass IS selfish with Gary… but rather than selfish in the Evil, Scheming sense, it’s more like the typical high school stuff. First, high school relationships’re screwy anyway… especially when you’ve been with the boy for years and years, and all your friends and family all think you should be together. Second, Cass is aggressive and ambitious, confident and headstrong… and Gary is a marshmallow. Isn’t it typical that a seventeen-year-old girl like Cass would see how far she could push a boy like Gary? That doesn’t mean it’s right or good, of course… just characteristic.
Listen to that: "My own loose ends keep flapping in the wind. I hope I’ll never be neat"…. Wow! Cass is individualistic, rough, frank, Whitmanesque… whereas Penny is colorless, idle, conventional- No, Penny is Convention Personified! I can’t say it enough: EVERYTHING about Penny is conventional!
Anyway, Penny finally gets off her duff a little when she decides she wants to sew. But even in that, Penny is prosaically conventional:
I really can’t help agreeing with Cass on this one, guys.
Yeah, Cass can be heavy-handed with Penny (and it’s clear from her diary that she’s aware of this, questions the motivations behind it, and knows it’s not entirely healthy), but (and she’s aware of this too) it’s out of her frustration, her inability to understand how someone can be content without real goals! In fact, we see a couple instances very early in the book where Cass tries to change Penny, get her to read and care about school, or dress more Cass-like, but it never works. Penny goes along half-heartedly with it until it’s obvious it won’t make any difference.
Penny’s sewing is the most independent thing about her. She doesn’t do it because she’s told to or feels like she has too… in fact, she takes it up because of an almost mystic revelation that that’s what she wants to do. She becomes slightly more interesting as she learns to sew, but considering what she was before, that ain’t much. She’s still as conventional and dull as generic boxed mac&cheese. Granted she’s not independent in how she sews… constantly relying on "what’s in style" and "what’s popular," but if I go off on that tangent, we’ll be here all night….
As Cass and Gary approach graduation (having broken up and gotten back together once more in the process), Penny becomes fixated on the Senior Prom… in part because she wants to (and she wants Cass to) "make Gary happy" before Cass abandons everyone to selfishly go off to Harvard.
Gary is as conventional as Penny. Gary wants to go to Prom in a tux, wants Cass in a pretty dress with a wrist corsage. Cass wants to go in army fatigues… if she even goes to the Prom at all. Gary is bitter about that. "Why does she always have to be different from everybody else? Why can’t we look like other people for a change?" he complains to Penny while they’re at the library, waiting for Cass to find books on Ezra Pound. (Gary and Penny, incidentally, aren’t interested in books… Penny’s flipping through Vogue, and Gary, Playboy.) Penny, of course, agrees with Gary. And "by the time [Cass] found us, we were deep in happy plans for her senior prom," Penny says. Penny and Gary are "deep in happy plans" for CASS’S Prom? Um, but Cass didn’t want to go to the prom, remember?!
Penny and Gary are united in trying to make Cass what she isn’t; the Prom – which becomes like a surrogate wedding – is the culmination of that, with Penny striving to give Gary a conventional Cass in order to "make him happy." Penny’s original plans for the Prom dress she wants to make for Cass have absolutely nothing to do with Cass’s taste… and sound like wanna-be wedding dresses: "One was a billowy, flouncy sort of Victorian dress that could be made in pink chiffon, and the other was a Laura Ashley pattern that could be done in white eyelet with blue ribbons." And Gary is all jonesin’ to wear a white tux. I mean, really, how Fake Wedding is this? Thank God Cass insists on some slinky black dress instead…. At any rate, Cass writes in her diary:
Despite ostensibly having read this herself in Cass’s diary (and despite hating it when Cass tried to make her someone she wasn’t!!!), Penny still insists on trying to force Cass to be all excited about the Prom, the dress, the whole she-bang, because she thinks she "should" be… and is confused and doesn’t understand when Cass reacts in anger instead. Hello?
In fact, Penny kinda takes the whole Prom as a sign that everything is perfect (as if they ever were to begin with!) with Cass and Gary. Even Gary thinks the same, although he continues to sulk about Cass going away to Harvard and wanting to know why she can’t just stay home and go to Berkeley or Stanford instead, why they can’t get married…?
Penny is totally fixated on clothes at this point. She’s not thinking of whether or not Cass and Gary should get married… she’s thinking about the dress. When Cass confesses she’s nervous about Harvard and the coursework, Penny offers not encouragement about Cass’s intellectual abilities, but rather, to make her a suit for college. When Mom gets a part-time job at a travel agent’s, Penny starts making her clothes for work, which somehow transform Mom into a confident career woman. And Gary, working in a computer store instead of going to college, complains that the "most successful salesman at work… wore a camel’s hair jacket with a pair of brown flannel pants. Customers were always impressed with class, Gary said…." So Penny volunteers to make him a camel’s hair jacket.
Cass comes home for Christmas and observes to Penny that
It’s ironic that, as Penny gets a little more direction in her life, a little more confidence, she becomes increasingly conventional and annoying and disputable. She drops out of school and goes to work as a seamstress at a bridal shop. (As if Penny needed more fodder for her wedding-fixation?) And Penny’s just as obsessive over the store’s brides as she was over Cass’s potential wedding with Gary….
Gary still wants to marry Cass, and for Christmas, he and Penny together pick out a not-really-an-engagement-ring ring for Cass. Like with the fantasy Prom dresses, the ring is completely not Cass’s style: it’s a gold ring, with a heart-shaped amethyst surrounded by tiny diamonds. It’s also not Cass’s style, in that Cass has no desire to be engaged, engaged-to-be-engaged, or wear a boy’s ring of any kind.
Cass makes it clear to Gary that their relationship is over. She’s also busy with her educational goals, making plans to study economics in London. With this (or perhaps because of it?) Penny is (and therefore We-the-Readers are meant to be…?) no longer idolatrous of Cass. Cass’s sloppiness is now seen entirely as carelessness, as lack of pride in her appearance and what people think of her. Cass’s ambition and drive are wholly selfish. Her intelligence is just something that is going to prevent her from settling down. Penny even says derisively that Cass "won’t make any man happy."
The thing that’s weird in here – and one of the things that makes me question just how the author meant us to see Penny and Cass – is that Cass starts an affair with one of her professors… and is goony in love with him. I really don’t know what to make of that. Either way, it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a shame that, since Cass is away at school, we no longer have her PoV via her diary entries. It’s all seen solely though Penny’s eyes from now on….
So what happens next? Why, Penny and Gary fall madly in love! Yes, Penny is in love with her sister’s ex-boyfriend – the sister she idolized and wanted to be like – and is actually dumb enough to believe it doesn’t signify a whole score of psychological problems! I know, Penny and Gary have had a friendly relationship, but it’s always been based on Cass: talking about Cass, wanting Cass to do something (marry Gary, go to the Prom with him, stay in San Francisco instead of going away to school), hanging out together when Cass is too busy with a rally or a report or college to hang out with one or the other of them….
And I know it’s a good thing that Penny’s grown more confident because of her work at the bridal salon… but I still couldn’t help but notice that Penny does EVERYTHING where Gary’s concerned. She calls him up out of nowhere. She suggests they "get together" some Saturday (coincidentally her seventeenth birthday… how can Gary say no to that?), and she actually (consciously or unconsciously, I’m not sure) makes like Cass as she talks on and on about her work and her plans and her goals. She grabs Gary and kisses him, she tells Gary she loves him, she even tells Gary she knows he loves her and not Cass. Gary does nothing more than replace one sister with the "baby sister" and go along with whatever she says.
Penny tells We-the-Reader that "in the next couple of weeks" after her birthday, she and Gary spend a lot of time together, talking about their goals and making plans. Gary wants to keep working at the computer stores. They both are going to study at City College: he, a computer class and she, a business class. Penny wants to keep working at the salon and maybe go into partnership with the owner. "And me?" Gary asked. "What about me? …Sometimes you sound like Cass. Sometimes it sounds as if there’s no place for me in your plans." Ohhh, it gets better, guys:
Oh. My. Fucking. God.
The only thing worse is when Penny tells Cass about her and Gary, and Cass comes home. Penny acts like she has no idea why Cass is upset. And, at first, Penny feels all confident and mature in "the new dove-colored linen dress that I had run up as soon as I heard Cass was coming home" …especially since Cass has "disheveled hair" and a "red, puffy face" and "wrinkled clothes" after the flight home. She and Cass have a big ol’ knock-down-drag-out, with Cass telling Penny she’s going to get hurt and is only marrying Gary to spite her, and Penny screaming that Gary does love her, he does! Cass also makes arrangements to see Gary and talk to him while she’s in town… and Penny freaks out on Wonderful Gary. "You don’t have any backbone when it comes to Cass," I said nervously. "She turns you into a jellyfish." Hey, brain surgeon? This is the person you think you’re going to marry and live happily ever after with! 1) Don’t you think you should’ve resolved all of these Big Issues before the big engagement? And 2) if you and Gary get married, Cass is still going to be your sister… what’ll you do then if you can’t trust Gary around Cass? Gads! Moreover, Penny is so frightened about what happened with Cass and Gary that she can’t work, can’t eat, and has to take sedatives to calm down and get some sleep.
Can we even begin to count all of the things that’re wrong, here?
It goes on. Gary meets Penny the next day to tell her what happened with Cass.
As if it were a brand-new thought? After he’s supposedly in love with Penny and planning to marry her?! And sorry, guys, but Cass isn’t trying to usurp your great, romantic love because she "thinks Gary only loves her"… in fact, her reasoning is quite valid. Penny, however, would like to believe that, instead of Cass being worried about Penny getting hurt by marrying too young or about the obvious psychological problems of Penny marrying Cass’s ex-boyfriend, that it’s really just that Cass is soooo jealous of Penny, because Penny now has Gary and Cass doesn’t.
Get a fucking life, Penny and Gary!
How does it end? Well, Gary gives Penny a teeny tiny diamond ring for Christmas at the family present-opening. "The ring hadn’t come as a surprise. I had given myself a manicure the night before, polishing my fingernails with a deep rose-blush color in preparation." I’m guessing that Penny went to the store and picked out the ring herself and told Gary that was what he was giving her for Christmas! Anyway, Penny’s happily immersed in wedding plans. Gary wants to go to Hawaii for their honeymoon, but Penny’s decided she wants to go to New York City and visit some of the big bridal shops there. And Penny, Princess Bridal Shoppe Seamstress, is especially keen deciding what everyone’s going to wear. She’s planning the mothers’ outfits and "our trousseau." But especially important is the Bridal Attire:
Sound familiar? Think back to Penny’s description of her fantasy wedding dress for Cass when she married Gary: "It has a keyhole neckline, a lace bodice with little seed pearls and modified leg-of-mutton sleeves."
Even better, Penny is planing Cass’s Maid of Honor attire… even though Cass has left for England, won’t be coming back for the wedding, and hasn’t called or written Penny.
That’s how the book ends. Penny, oblivious to reality, is still trying to do what she has from page one: make Cass into someone she isn’t, redressing her, cleaning her up, making her as conventional as Penny and Gary themselves. From the prom dress to the fantasy wedding dress, from the heart-shaped amethyst ring to the cashmere bathrobe, to now with fantasy bridesmaid dress… Penny still refuses to see and accept Cass for who she is, is still trying to change her… and is still united with Gary because of it. (To be fair, Cass isn’t all that tolerant of Penny’s choices, and wants to change Penny’s mind. Penny wants to change Cass’s outside, Cass wants to change Penny’s inside. But again, since we don’t have Cass’s diary anymore, it’s hard to know just where Cass’s feelings are….)
And especially noteworthy of the ending: there’s "no message" for Penny in bridges and clocks (things that provide transition and reflect the passage of time, things that symbolize movement, things that represent England, travel, places far away from home). Penny won’t be going anywhere, won’t be "moving" on in any way. Even by marrying Gary and getting a little apartment and taking a business class, Penny isn’t really growing much at all.
To add to it all, there’s also the author’s quote at the end of the book, in the "about the author" section: "‘Heroes and heroines in books are usually beautiful, talented, or brilliant, and yet most of us in real life struggle along without great gifts. Each of us, though has something special, like Penny in BABY SISTER.’"
That only raises more issues….
In the end, I can only ponder all that’s said and all that’s unsaid… and ask millions of unanswered questions. Was Penny, with her fixation on changing Cass, getting even for earlier years of feeling inferior and Cass’s attempted "makeovers" on her? Was Cass’s relationship with her teacher the most drastic way to get Gary to stop waiting for her and to get Penny to stop idolizing her? Has Penny inherited the worst of both her parents characteristics: her mother’s bossiness and her father’s incommunicability (despite the ironic fact that he’s a psychiatrist, which provides more food for thought)? Are Penny and Gary a fuckingly sick couple, or are they actually compatible because of their mutual desires for a conventional "married life"? Has Penny, in marrying Gary, quickly set up a marriage for herself like that of her parents, with a bossy wife telling an indifferent husband what to do and how to do it? Is Cass a strong and independent woman, or a man-using bitch? Is Penny just struggling to find herself, or is she a major psychological case-study as she tries to appropriate everything she possibly can from Cass? It’s obvious that Cass’s objectives and goals are rooted in "passion" whereas Penny’s are rooted in "fun"… is the author saying something about this? Comparing? Showing that, simply, Cass and Penny are just very different? Is Penny the "good guy" and Cass the "bad guy"… or vice versus… or neither? So, are we meant to approve of Penny’s choices because she isn’t "beautiful, talented, or brilliant"-
I can go on like this for ages every time I re-read this book.
As varied as Marilyn Sachs’s other stuff has been, I guess it’s entirely possible that she wrote this book in earnest, really thinking that Penny and Gary getting together was a good thing… and it’s equally as possible she’s saying something considerably more than "and Penny and Gary lived happily ever after."
One of these days, I’m going to track her down and find out, dammit.
This is one book that I love speculating about "what happens next?" … and I actually sketched out some outlines a while back, it was niggling at me so much! I can just see Penny, all wrapped up in wedding planning. I figured she would ask her one friend in the book, Catherine (overweight and dull, and very much left by the wayside when Penny started sewing), to be her Maid of Honor, since Cass wouldn’t be there. And I can imagine Catherine’s "why?" and her scathing reply, while Penny, in the meantime, just can’t understand why Catherine wouldn’t be jumping at the chance to take part. I can see Penny’s wedding, all Bridezilladly planned to the tiniest detail, with Penny staying up all night every night the week before to make hand-stitched aisle runners or wedding favors or something. I delight in the vision of the wedding being tense and not-all-that-joyful as relatives speculate: Why’re they getting married so young? What’s the rush? Where’s Cass? Did you know the groom used to be Cass’s boyfriend? And all while Penny trots around and carries on as if she’s Catherine Zeta-Jones and everyone is just thrilled to bits to be there!
And I can see Penny and Gary, living in some nondescript little apartment that Penny, of course, will have sewed all these slipcovers and curtains for, just like she used to back home. And Penny’ll be all wrapped up in things like decorating their apartment and making craftsy little table centerpieces for when she invites Gary’s boss at the computer store over for dinner and learning how to cook better and reading Good Housekeeping and carefully saving so she and Gary can move to a nice house in the suburbs someday soon and all that typical conventional married bullshit. Of course, after a while, Penny’s going to’ve OD’d on weddings and brides and’ll be sick of the whole bridal shop deal, and her job’ll be suffering because of it. Gary, never the life of the party, will be plodding along like always… and then he’ll have the "I’m not happy" revelation, and’ll decide he wants to, like, go live on a cattle ranch or take up surfing and move to Australia or just plain doesn’t want to be married any more. And Penny’ll be all confused that he isn’t happy. Why wouldn’t he be, when she makes all his clothes and is a good cook and sews such nice throw-pillows for their third-hand slipcovered couch and made a new dress for the Christmas party at Gary’s work and all that? So Penny’ll have to start from square one again and realize that maybe finishing school was important and she really oughta have more goals in life, and when you spend all your money on fabric for clothes and slipcovers, your bridal shop seamstress pay doesn’t go far. Maybe right about then, the Recession’ll hit, and Penny’ll be up shit creek without a paddle, as my mother would say. And in the meantime, Cass’ll be tearing all over Europe, going to grad school, writing important articles for journals and giving presentations and being politically active and just plain kicking ass.
So yeah, I’ve thought about Baby Sister WAY too much.
But you know… if anyone else has read/wants to read this book, and wants to tell me what their opinions are, please do!
Don't stop! We... aren't... quite... done... yet.....
Handsome as Anything (Merrill Joan Gerber): Really, all I can say is, DAMN, I wish I’d read this book in Jr. Hi. or high school…. Rachel Kaminsky doesn’t go through a makeover, doesn’t want to be popular, doesn’t desperately want to get married right away, doesn’t obsess about the Popular Boy at school- Even though she’s clearly searching amongst several boys for a possible boyfriend, that’s not the crux of the story. Instead, it’s primarily focused on Rachel’s search for personal identity.
Rachel is a delightful character, and it’s great fun to see where she goes, how she gets there, and what she feels about it all. This book is out of print, but should be fairly easy to get at a used bookstore or through amazon.com… and it’d be worth finding. Nothing majorly deep happens; it prolly won’t change your life… but this is SUCH a refreshing change from all the Typical YA Poo that it’s worth a read.
The Wind Blows Backward (Mary Downing Hahn): This book came out in 1993, when I was deep into the Chilluns’ Section at the bookstore. Wind Blows Backward is very much rooted in Typical YA Plot-land: shy, bookish and unpopular girl years for gorgeous, rich, popular boy. But the telling of the story is where the book shines: Lauren and Spencer are deeper and more complicated than that; they somehow rise above Typicality… for the most part.
What I found most impressive about this book as I read it, though, was that it had so many literary references. Spencer and Lauren are both avid readers and love poetry, so someone’s always talking about Frost or Whitman or Dickinson. In fact, there’s lots of kewl stuff – middle earth books, Doors albums, Simon & Garfunkel song lyrics, literary allusions – happening here. With that, combined with the sophisticated (for YA, anyway) storytelling, I was all ready to recommend it to any and every YA reader who came into my section of the store.
But when I got to the last page of the book, I threw it against the wall. What I’d been hoping for didn’t happen. You’ll see….
Lauren and Spencer were friends in grade school, but he ditched her to be Mister Popular come Junior High. They reconnect senior year, because both are struggling with parental problems. But Spencer… Spencer’s, like, Dylan McKay Mach II to the nth degree. He’s deeply depressed, moody, has suicidal thoughts…. Yeah, it’s understandable: as a child, he discovered his father’s dead body (from suicide), and now thinks he’s doomed to repeat the past. But Lauren is meant to save him, to protect him from his demons, to rescue him from his dark side!
And we all know how fond I am of THAT motif.
I (narcissistic as ever) also saw a lot of Teen-Aged Dwanollah in Lauren. She loves Spencer and thrills that he needs her, depends on her to protect him… but who protects Lauren?
Spencer’s problems, his depression, his anger and moods, are made to seem poetic and romantic – serious, yes, but still poetic and romantic. Lauren sees him once as Keats, once as "Hamlet on a motorcycle," often as the hero of this or that fantasy quest trilogy.
And because she’s compelled to take care of him, Lauren doesn’t find fault with Spencer’s behavior – even when she should – and does find fault with the behavior of others toward Spencer and gets angry at them… even when Spencer is at least partially the cause of trouble. When Lauren’s mom first meets Spencer, she chats with him and asks him questions, normal questions: Where do you want to go to college? Is that where your parents went? Do you still run track? Do you like this song? Spencer, Mister Moody, later complains to Lauren that her mom is nosy and intrusive… and Lauren jumps to agree with him, inwardly cursing her mother for not being more sensitive. Um, Lauren? You WANTED your mother to take interest in your life, remember? But noooo, it’s a big problem because it upset Spencer. Another time, Spencer and Lauren ditch school and go to his house. Up in his room, they’re goin’ at it hot and heavy, when Spencer’s mother comes home. She doesn’t actually see them making out, but she knows what’s going on. And she calls Spencer downstairs and reprimands him. Lauren’s reaction? "Things were wrong again, his good mood was gone. It was his mother’s fault, she’d spoiled everything. Hating Mrs. Adams, I grabbed the strap and hung on." What’s Lauren hanging on to? The Oh-Shit Handle in the car, because when Spencer’s upset, he has to drive really fast, see. Because he’s mad. No matter that it’s 1) dangerous and 2) scares Lauren. He’s MAD!
And Lauren has sex with Spencer for the first time to, in part, take away the hurt he’s feeling over this scene with his mother. Yeah, yeah, they’re in love and attracted to each other and all that, too, but…
Notice she ends on needed… and needed stands on its own. She does this a couple times… says that she can’t "say no" to Spencer if he wants to take The Next Big Step, because he "needs" her.
Is this healthy? ESPECIALLY for a teen girl!?
Moreover, the whole "one who’d never leave me, never desert me" is a bunch of shit, too, because Spencer keeps talking about killing himself. And then Lauren has to take the "you wouldn’t do that! You wouldn’t do that to me!" tact, because if she loves him enough, he’d never want to kill himself, and if he DOES want to kill himself, it MUST be because of something SHE did wrong- Fuck.
Face it. Spencer holds all the cards. He’s the one in charge. And Lauren easily buckles, submits to Spencer and all his problems and feelings… even though she has problems and feelings of her own. The only time Lauren mentions her own father’s abandonment of her as a child, Spencer doesn’t acknowledge it, but instead covertly one-ups her by launching into his "worse" story about his father. Lauren routinely just abandons her own feelings, ideas, goals, in the face of Spencer’s. When Spencer disparages Mr. Walker, her favorite English teacher, Lauren ditches her own feelings and opinions with hardly a pang.
And not long after, when Walker dares to question Spencer about a paper in class, "hatred surged through my veins like black bile. How could I have admired Walker? …Looking at him with Spencer’s eyes, I despised my teacher."
All Lauren cares about is that Spencer approves of her. Damn! Listen to Spencer, doing that "Well, he’s a jerk so I don’t even HAVE to try in his class" bullshit. Listen to Lauren, unable to say a word about something that’s important to her in the face of Spencer’s criticism!
Yes, Teen-Aged Dwanollah was just this spineless. Granted, DumbAss wasn’t one-tenth as smart, intellectually speaking, as Spencer. But even so, if he thought something was stupid, I thought it was stupid. He criticized a band I liked, or my love of reading, or a goal I had, and I just stashed it down and hid it like it was a shameful secret. And nothing was more important than his needs. I had a problem? Yeah, whatever. But if DumbAss was mad about something, then the whole world stopped. Spencer- Okay, sure, he’s troubled. He’s depressed. That’s understandable. But! He’s also very selfish. It’s lucky he and Lauren have so many of the same interests, because he usually decides what they’re going to do. He’s always the one demanding, through his actions, that Lauren take care of HIM… it’s never equally reciprocated. If he wants attention, then Lauren has to drop everything – ditch school, skip work – to be with Spencer. (He actually jeopardizes Lauren’s job because he hangs around, distracting her, kissing her, demanding her attention and time.) And if he’s angry, then he "has" to act out – driving fast, drinking, having hysterics, yelling – no matter how much it hurts Lauren or puts her at risk. He has little consideration for her safety, her feelings, her personal boundaries, her responsibilities.
And no one – especially not the author, by way of the book’s conclusion – ever says that Spencer’s behavior, despite being a by-product of something valid and serious, is still WRONG!
Now, of course, what I was hoping was that Lauren was finally going to realize that her feelings and troubles matter just as much as Spencer’s… that she was going to tell him to quit being such a selfish dick, that she was outa there until he got his shit together… and if he didn’t, then fine! Brood away!
But at the end, Lauren’s STILL taking care of Spencer, even after he’s fucked up and made a mess of things (I won’t give it all away, though). Oh, she gets fed up with his gloominess and says "bullshit" to him… but thirty seconds after her Big Moment, she’s crying again. And Spencer, although he’s been taken down a peg or two by all that’s happened and is in counseling, is still the dominant one, is still the one whose problems and feelings and thoughts matter most. And Lauren is still content to just have Spencer want and need her. Fuckwit.
So. Was that Blathery enough for y’all?
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