Monthly Archives: March 2012

#7: Unraveling by Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman

With two major flaws, this is great YA.

There are some spoilers ahead.  I tried to be vague, but I might give too much away for some of you.

Amanda is 15 and a mess.  Her parents seem headed for divorce, her mom is constantly disappointed in her, her younger sister is perfect, and her love life is a disaster.

That plot could be used for almost any other YA book on the shelf. but Baldini and Biederman do so much more with Amanda and it’s wonderful.

The book deals with two major themes: Amanda and her mother and Amanda and boys.

Amanda’s mom sucks.  “The Captain” is wound so tightly that she cannot accept the fact that Amanda’s period doesn’t start “on time” and that Amanda isn’t on a regular cycle.  She can’t handle that Amanda would put on her socks before putting on pants.  If Amanda says she needs to “pee”, there’s going to be a lengthy discussion on why “urinate” is the proper word choice.

As Amanda gets older and her teen problems get worse, she pulls back from her mom as much as possible.  While part of her wants desperately to have her guidance and acceptance, she’s been hurt too many times to try any more.  The Captain forgets Amanda’s birthday, but has no problem spending way too much money on Amanda’s sister’s Bat Mitzvah.  The Captain got knocked up at 16, and even though she’s still together with Amanda’s dad, Amanda is very aware that she completely destroyed her life the moment she was conceived.  She’ll never be good enough and it will always hurt when she falls short.

While all of this is happening, Amanda is desperate for a boyfriend.  She met Paul last summer and they’ve been texting and IMing all year.  She just wants to meet up with him this summer and lose her virginity.  She’s scared, but he thinks she’s older (he’s 18) and that she’s more experienced.  She isn’t experienced at all, but she’s madly in love with him and wants to be with him forever, and what better way to start a long lasting relationship than sex?  Her friends are encouraging, and her best friend does want her to be safe and OK, but it’s clear that Amanda is ready to have sex.  Or at least she’s ready to say she’s ready.  She wants to be ready.

When they meet up, she panics.  She’s started her period and doesn’t want him to know, but he thinks she’s teasing him and won’t put out.  She ends up pacifying him with oral sex.  It’s her first sexual act and she is woefully unprepared for the mental scramble that’s about to hit her.  After they’ve finished, he walks her home and right into the path of The Captain.  She, of course, loses her shit.  Amanda wasn’t supposed to be out and has given The Captain even more evidence that she’s a horrible kid who isn’t going to amount to anything.  Paul takes off and Amanda never sees him again.  She’s panicked and confused, especially when she gets back home and he blocks her after she keeps texting and IMing him.  She honestly thought that they were starting a relationship and is sad she didn’t get to prove to him how much he means to her.

This spectacular failure takes her back into the school year.  She’s crushed that she and Paul aren’t in long distance love but is ready to find the next perfect guy.  Now that she’s experienced, she knows what she needs to do.  Wonder of wonders, Rick suddenly takes notice of her.  Not only is he the hottest guy in school, he’s her worst enemy’s boyfriend.  She is thrilled that she’s about to get a boyfriend who will love her and hold her hand in public, and on top if that, he’s going to break his current girlfriend’s heart to do it.

Amanda doesn’t seem to notice that Rick only wants to hang out when no one else is around.  Hanging out is making out and working their way up to other things.  Amanda gets more frustrated because he won’t break up with Courtney.  They finally work out a deal where she’ll have sex with him and he’ll take her to the Homecoming Dance.  Everyone will see them together and he’ll have to end it with Courtney.

Again, while all of this is going on, Amanda continues to fight with The Captain.  She tries to be helpful but is pushed away.  She can’t find the right words or the right deeds to make things OK, and seeing the way her mom and sister get along, it makes it so much worse.

The Homecoming Dance happens, and it’s a total disaster.  Amanda needs a mom.  She needs help.  She gets nothing.

Things explode over Thanksgiving break and her relationship with her mom gets worse and worse.  The Captain got a new computer and asked Amanda to help her set it up.  Amanda quietly saved her mom’s password and has been reading her emails for a while.  The only person The Captain’s connects to her is best friend, Marion.  Amanda reads their emails and gets even more proof at how worthless she is to her mom.

But still, she tries.  It’s heartbreaking and real how much Amanda pulls back and reaches out at the same time.  The Captain tries every once in a while too, but their relationship is a mess, they’re never emotionally in the same place, and they just get further and further apart.

And this brings us to the first of the major flaws.

As I was reading, I thought it was good that there was a character with such a horrible relationship with her mom and I was looking forward to the resolution.  Something had to change and I was eager to see how it would play out.  I thought of female YA readers and how they would respond to this relationship and how they would see their own relationships with their moms reflected in the book.  I wanted to know what moment was going to happen to make Amanda and/or The Captain finally stop and either change or give in.  Would the relationship completely dissolve or would they be able to overcome the huge gap and emotional (and a few physical) scars to try to make things better?

A lot of books I’ve been reading with female/female relationships get to this point and then chose an easy way out: someone gets really sick (usually cancer), someone dies, or something else incredibly terrible happens.  Books with mother/daughter, female best friend, or sister relationships seem to get stuck and use this plot device to move things forward.  It happened here, and I was pissed.

The Very Bad Thing happens and that’s what motivates Amanda and her mom to change their relationship.  I was really angry because Baldini and Biederman created a powerful conflict and I wanted to see how they were going to get out of it for their readers.  Even though The Captain made my stomach hurt, I wanted it to work.  I wanted one of them to find the magic sentence that would start fixing their relationship.  But no… they brought out the Very Bad Thing.  All I could think was turning to the readers and saying “That’s right kids.  If you have a shitty relationship with your family, the only way it’s going to get better is if someone gets cancer, dies, or some other incredibly traumatic event happens.  That is the only way relationships are fixed.”

Bullshit.

Yes, bad things happen but more often than not, they don’t happen.  Where’s the help for the readers who don’t get to experience a Very Bad Thing?  So. Angry!

The second flaw is tied in with something amazing that Baldini and Biederman did with the writing.  The book is fairly explicit.  There are penises and vaginas.   There is oral sex.  There is virginity and the losing of virginity.  But all of this happens with Amanda’s vocabulary and preparedness and it is brilliantly done.  The first time she sees a penis she can’t even use a noun.  It is simply “it”.  No slang, no terminology….just “it”.  And she doesn’t just see “it”.  “It” is in her mouth, but she doesn’t have the terminology or emotional level to name what’s happening.  All she knows is if Paul wants her, then he will want all of her and she gets to be loved, in loved, and everyone gets to know it.  She knows she needs to play her part to get the boy, but she doesn’t understand why she feels so empty and horrible after.

And this leads into the second flaw: girls enjoying sex.  Amanda only gets to enjoy the physical sensations in a few parts of the book.  This sort of makes sense because she’s letting the boys do all of the negotiating and meeting all of their needs, but there’s little talk of how and when she enjoys being with Paul and then Rick.  There is one veiled masturbation reference that I’m guessing goes over a lot of readers’ heads.  Female sexuality is not seen in a positive light with Amanda’s friends, either.  They are a group of four and the one friend who says she has sex and enjoys is is dismissed as a “nympho”, Amanda feels he shouldn’t be proud of her reputation, and that she isn’t even really their friend.  It’s a weird message.  It’s clear that Amanda shouldn’t be giving it up so boys will pay attention to her, but girls also shouldn’t be in control and enjoying sex?  I didn’t like that there the only female positive experience was pushed into the “slut” column.  Girls aren’t having orgasms in this book, at least that we know of.

Finally, the format of the book is clever and works well with the plot.  Amanda is really good at poetry and Baldini and Biederman break up some of the chapters with her poems.  It’s used really well because Amanda will talk about how she’s done with her mom and she’s not going to try anymore, but the next page will be a poem showing how much she wants things to be OK between them.  Baldini and Biederman also use The Captain’s emails to show another side of her.  Marion is the only person she can talk to, so we get to see her frustrations and disappointments.  It was interesting to see a fight play out and then get The Captain’s run down of the events.  Using Amanda’s narration, her poems and her mother’s emails works very well.

Overall, I liked this one a lot.  I hope it’s got an audience and is leading girls to ask good questions about sex and all the reasons why to have it.

#6: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

Books like this make me wish I was in a book club.  I really wanted to talk with other readers and get their thoughts on the story.  I wanted to know if they were as depressed as I was while reading and if they found any hope in the ending.

Pearl Tull is on her deathbed.  The book starts with her worrying about her adult children, wishing they had more mothers to to care for them and keep them on the right path.  Pearl’s husband left the family in 1944 and she kept them close and raised them on her own.  She is a solitary figure who never asked for help and built her life around her children.  The opening chapter makes you feel her frustration knowing she has to leave and there’s still so much she wants to see her children accomplish.

And then her children get their own chapters and everything changes.  We see Pearl mentally and physically abuse them.   Cody, the oldest, is filled with jealous rage for his brother Ezra and quietly attacks him with cruel pranks while they are growing up.  Jenny, the only daughter, is caught in her mother’s twisted mind that she will never be good enough for anyone, and yet must marry the perfect man. 

But the story still changes, as it should, depending on who is telling it.  Cody’s rage fuels his every movement.  He constantly looks for slights against him and hangs on to these grudges.  Knowing his girlfriends lose interest in him when they meet Ezra, he immediately brings them to the house to test them.  As soon as they ask about Ezra, even if innocently, he smugly gets rid of them for being like the rest while piling on more hatred for his brother.

Ezra seems both clueless and frantically hopeful.  He genuinely has no clue what Cody’s girlfriends think of him.  He would never hurt Cody, so he can’t even form the the idea that he would take up with one of these girls.  As he gets older he tries to force his family into behaving like a family “should”.  He is the owner of the Homesick Restaurant and unsuccessfully tries to have his family sit down for a full meal time and time again.  Before they can finish, and sometimes even before they all sit down, Pearl or Cody will feel slighted or insulted or ignored or tricked and everyone will storm out.  Jenny doesn’t understand why Ezra tries and will rush to try and appease the wounded party or escape off on her own.

Jenny’s chapters are different from her brothers’ because she has to deal with her mother’s expectations for her as a woman.  Pearl constantly criticizes the way she looks and acts, telling her she is worthless and hopeless, but then speaks eagerly of Jenny’s future.  It’s clear that Pearl is projecting her own life on to her daughter’s without being able to identify with her in any way.  In some ways Jenny is able to navigate her family by not attaching to any of them, yet she finds herself returning home time and time again.  She marries and divorces several times.  Where Ezra wants a family meal to define normalcy, Jenny tries on different marriages in the hopes that one of them will be right.

By the end of the book, you have a solid picture of the dysfunctional family.  I found myself wondering what things would have been like if the father had stayed.  I don’t think it would have mattered.  Pearl still would have been filled with disappointment and would have affected her children the same way.  There were times I was sympathetic with each character and times where I couldn’t connect with them at all.  I can see why people don’t like this book and feel that all of the characters are unsympathetic, but I think that’s because they are written so realistically.  Sometimes you have to search to find a redeeming quality in a person.  Tyler isn’t going to do the work for you in this book.

One of the main reasons I want a book group for this is because of Ezra.  Reading online reviews, people love him.  Tyler herself says that he was her favorite character in the book.  He’s hopeful and kind and eager.  I admired his kindness, especially the way he befriends those that society has deemed unworthy, but I hated how he approached everything in a  haze.  Cody does terrible things to him and he never reacts.  One major event happens between the two of them and Ezra barely seems to notice.  It’s like his brain is underdeveloped: if he can’t imagine doing something to a person, he is unable to process the fact that someone did it to him.  I know people responded to him because of this, but I wanted him to have one moment where he stood up and knocked stuff over because he had finally been pushed too far and needed to push back.

I liked the idea of the Homesick Restaurant.  Ezra is sick at the thought of not having his family, even though he seems to think they are something they are not.  The family itself is sick.  They are all searching for something and there’s a sense of homesickness, even if none of them every had the thing in the first place.

This is the kind of book that gets under your skin.  Something will remind me of a character and I’ll get mad all over again about something that happened, or feel frustrated that a character didn’t work something out, or be sad that no one ever seemed to hear what anyone else was saying.  Tyler is a gifted writer and I look forward to reading more of her work.