Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads 'Stranger With My Face', Lois Duncan's 1981 novel in which Laurie Stratton gets every girl's wish: to be adopted, and to have a secret twin sister.
My name is Laurie Stratton. I am seventeen years old, and I live at the Cliff House on the northern tip of Brighton Island.
Would it have been so hard to let me astrally project, God? I know the telepathy was not a possibility, as by second grade, my peers and I were already running numerous controlled studies using the means of scrap paper and different corners of the room, and to succeed would have granted me far too much power amongst them. I know you gave me precognition that one time about winning that contest in 8th grade and it was so spooky I could never have handled any more spook. I am way too OCD to move things with my mind, and I know, as I am not the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, I cannot be a witch. HOWEVER.
I don't see what the PROBLEM would have been with allowing me to freaking LEAVE MY BODY FROM TIME TO TIME AND TRAVEL THE WORLD, BOUND ONLY BY AN INVISIBLE CORD LINKED TO MY TRUE SPIRIT WHILE MY BODY WAS TEMPORARILY A HUSK, A SHELL, TO ALL APPEARANCES DEAD!
In any case, Laurie Stratton, unbeknownst-to-self-child-of-the-Navajo-with-twin-sister, is far more blessed than I. (Nava-ho!) In Stranger With My Face, Duncan has ditched her typical Southwest setting for the rocky shoals of coastal New England, where our heroine lives with her mother and father, a painter and writer, respectively, and two sweet younger siblings, Neal and Megan. Also in the mix is Laurie's so-psyched-to-no-longer-be-gawky prize of a ripped boyfriend, Gordon; a brooding, darkly handsome acquaintance, Jeff, whose face was half-burned off by an exploded can of lighter fluid; and, of course, an expert outsider WITH insider extrasensory knowledge, Laurie's schoolmate Helen Tuttle, who has recently moved from the Southwest and becomes Laurie's new friend.
Interestingly, the first few scenes of the novel, as befits the events to come, are rife with splits in which one element is not only the opposite of the other, but the veritable photo negative. First is Laurie's passage from gawky to glamorous—a constant Duncan trope at the beginnings of her novel's. Laurie's improved looks not only alter her appearance but her entire social currency:
In every girl's life, I guess, there must be one special summer that is a turning point, a time of stretching and reaching and blossoming out and leaving childhood behind. This was the summer that had happened to me. The year before, I had been awkward and gawky, all pointed knees and sharp elbows and bony rib cage, hiding my shyness behind a book while girls like Natalie Coleson and Darlene Briggs wriggled around in their bikinis and got boys to buy them Cokes and rub them with baby oil.
This summer it had all been different. The first day I walked out onto the beach, clutching my book and my beach towel, I heard a wolf whistle.
Another split is found in Jeff Rankin, a former crush of Laurie's who is now moody and withheld, though il a raison:
He was fourteen that first year, with the sort of dark, flashy good looks that by rights should have belonged to someone much older. The second summer he came, he had a motor bike, and there was always some squealing girl sitting on it behind him, with her arms wrapped around his waist and her chin on his shoulder. Sometimes her hair was dark and blond and sometimes red, but it was always long and shiny, flying out behind them like the tail of a comet as they went roaring down the road.
I turned fourteen myself that year—a skinny, flat-chested fourteen—and I dreamed at night about what it would be like to be one of those girls.
....it was a good thing Jeff did have that summer, because halfway through the next one a can of lighter fluid exploded and burned off half his face...
The left side of his face was fine. If you saw him at a certain angle, you'd have thought he was the best-looking guy you'd ever seen. If you saw him from the right, you had to stop and swallow hard.
It occurs to me that even the fact that Laurie is recounting, not experiencing, the events in question, leads to a sort of narrative split, the dreadful present aftermath merging with a golden past. (Does not "There was a time when I, too, loved Cliff House," have more than a whiff of "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again"?)
However, the biggest initial split is with Laurie and her own family—from whom she is inherently estranged, just as Jeff is to his old face, by looks:
I didn't have the sort of looks you found just everywhere. Gordon kidded sometimes that I could be part Indian with my dark coloring, high cheekbones and almond eyes. "Bedroom eyes," he called them, meaning they were sexy. My father referred to them as "alien" because they were the same shape as the eyes he gave to the maidens from other worlds in his novels. When I looked at my parents—both of them so fair—and at Neal and Meg with their light blue eyes and freckled noses, I wondered sometimes how I had managed to be born into such a family.
Well, duh, you weren't! However, we don't learn this from Dad and Mom. (Who, p.s., are a "night person" and a "day person" whose schedules only briefly coincide, just to pile this kind of thing on.) Instead, we learn this from a sepulchral presence around town who people keep mistaking for Laurie. As the days pass, "Laurie" appears at a party the actual Laurie has begged off of, enraging Gordon; in the house, confusing Laurie's parents; at the Post Office, where she accepts a birthday invite that she fails to pass on, enraging the birthday girl; and in various lonely poses around the dunes surrounding Cliff House.
Laurie is beside herself at how this could be happening, but, luckily, Helen Tuttle, child of the Southwest, holder of knowledge of the Navajo, and former girlfriend of Luis, a Navajo, is there to point out an explanation other than Laurie's going crazy:
...."I was home in bed the whole time,"
"You weren't using astral projection, were you?" Helen asked.
"Using what?" I said in bewilderment.
"You know—sending your mind out from your body? Luis's father used to be able to do it."
Aw, sheet. Is someone gonna take a book or two out from the library? You know they is! Okay, but getting ahead of myself. Laurie finally gets the answer to her question, when she is visited, in a profound dream, by Lia, who claims to be her twin sister and leans across and gives her a spooky astral-projection kiss. At this point, in possession of a towering mountain of supernatural proof, Laurie confronts her parents, whose reaction is, to put it mildly, not-open. "The trend today is toward total openness about adoption," her father says. "Still, that idea has been upsetting to your mother....Laurie, it's not that big a deal. You're the same person you always were. You're our beloved daughter....Now that you know your background, there's nothing left for you to wonder about. Can't we just file this away and get on with our normal lives?"
Um, let's just file THAT away for a second, and I will come back to it. (Incidentally, as someone who's approximately 9,873 years old, I have to admit I remember very well when this kind of secrecy was the norm, oh young Juno fans.) What's more key for the plot at this point is her mother's explanation of why her parents, confronted with a set of beautiful, mixed-blood Navajo twins to adopt, did not just snag both:
"Then, why—" The question rose to my lips without my even realizing that I was going to ask it. "Why did you take me instead of her?"
"We couldn't raise both of you," Dad said. "We were going out on a limb to take even one dependent at that point in our lives."
"That's not what I asked," I said. "What I want to know is, why did you choose me over my sister?"
There was a moment's silence as my parents exchanged glances.
Then Dad said slowly, "Your mother—your mother, well, she thought—"
"I didn't want her," Mother said. Her normally gentle voice was strangely sharp. "I just didn't want her. I wanted you."
"But if we were just a like—"
"You weren't alike," Mother said. "You looked just alike—both of you so beautiful with big, solemn eyes and all that thick, dark hair. The people at the agency wanted us to take you both, and despite what Dad says, I really think we might have done it. It seemed wrong to separate twin sisters. I picked you up and cuddled you, and I knew I never wanted to let you go. It was as though you were meant to be ours. Then I handed you to Dad to hold and picked up the other baby, and—and—"
"And what?" I prodded.
"I wanted to put her down."
BECAUSE LIA IS EVIL, OBVIOUSLY!!!!!!!!!! And, of course, the machinations of Lia's evil, as they unfold in the novel, are great fun. Not only does she put Helen Tuttle in the hospital (the ability of specters to put people in hospitals in the novels of Lois Duncan must only be exceeded by the ability of the shark in the Jaws franchise to increasingly have the ability to handily kill people on dry land), she lures Jeff and Laurie to a near-death experience, and, having alienated Laurie completely from her peers and those who love her, manages to invade her body and steal her entire life.
BUT NOT SO FAST, LIA!
Because rather than entirely cut the cord of Laurie Stratton from all the elements of her life, ironically, Lia's invasion, in the end, strengthens them. Lia's ruining of friendships brought on Laurie's new social status only makes Laurie realize how tenuous those bonds were in the first place, and how glad she can be in Helen's truer loyalty. Her interruption of the placid family structure of the Strattons forces Laurie's parents to realize how damaging their inability to face Laurie's adoption was, which in turn allows Laurie to realize she is, in the end, a Stratton who loves and is loved her family. And, most important, when Lia splits Laurie and Gordon apart, she actually brings Jeff and Laurie together—not coincidentally because Jeff, unlike Gordon, is willing to face the question of Lia and Laurie's adoption, and he's also willing to talk about the weirder question of what Megan calls Laurie's "ghosty":
"Look, Jeff, there's no sense in our discussing this. You don't believe in astral projection, and I don't blame you. I couldn't accept it myself until just recently." A question occurred to me. "What were you doing here the night you thought you saw me? There's no reason for anyone to come out this way unless he's coming to Cliff House."
"I walk here sometimes because you live here," Jeff said.
Um, line of dialog in Sixteen Candles where Jake tells Molly Ringwald that he's come to the church because "I heard you were here," you have a freaking RIVAL FOR BEST LINE EVER!
But, even though the ostensible point of the novel is that looks don't matter because those who love us, like Laurie's savior and little sister Megan, can look past them to the true self beneath, of course, looks do matter. Not only are they a constant subject within Laurie's family before Laurie knows about Lia, as the novel commences, Laurie and Jeff's changing looks have reversed the course of their entire lives. Duncan's point about our appearance versus our true self is much more subtle. In the scene where Laurie, loosed from her own body, regards the sleeping Lia, we can see that clearly:
She was a duplicate of myself....yet there were differences.
This girl's ears were pierced, and mine were not. Mother and I had gone through a few rounds on that issue, and she had won. "There are enough natural holes in a person's anatomy," she had said firmly.
....There was a tiny scar on the chin that might have been nothing more than the result of scratching an insect bite, but it was a scar that I did not have.
There was a mole on the neck at a spot where I had no mole.
I continued my inspection...She had perfect fingernails, the kind that had always filled me with envy. My own had a scraggly look, not exactly "bitten to the quick," but "slightly gnawed."
Small things. Unimportant. Almost unnoticeable, yet they spelled the difference between Lia Abbott and Laurie Stratton.
So it is not that looks don't matter. Not only do they matter to others—they matter because they reflect choices we have made, what has been done by us and to us. Our looks may start with what life had dealt us, but they are also about the lives we lead. So it's not that you can't read a book by its cover. It's that if you do (look up), it's not the title or illustration you should look at — it's the nicks, creases, and dog-ears that tell the tale.
• • • • •
Hello, my pretties! Okay, for this week's extraordinarily depressing Plotfinder there were few called and fewer still to serve. The winner, beating my best friend's, "Ooooo, I know I read that but I can't remember the title," which I think I will start to refer to as a Not-finder, was the commenter The Former June Bronson, who clocked in with Randy at 12:59 pm. Ms. Bronson, I can find no supporting information for this book whatsoever and am not even sure if this is the right Randy. (YOU try plugging "Randy" into Google.) However, we operate on the honor system at Jezebel, and I'm sure I will imminently receive delighted confirmation from my Not-finder in any case.