Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'Love is One of the Choices', Norma Klein's 1978 novel of close encounters of the first kind.
It's a good week to talk about Love, because it's all about Love, apparently! But if I can point my finger accusingly and just say something to you, Michael Patrick King: long before your days of funky-tasting spunk, there was a New York where women and girls stalked the pavement talking ceaselessly of sex and relationships, chewing over their minutiae with little attention to anything else, set against a sea of Manhattan sophisticates, men totally did too, and they did it without drinking any Cosmopolitans whatsoever! And oh yeah, I curse the day you were born.
I am talking about the world of Norma Klein and her vanished Upper West Side, made up, if you assess the author's oeuvre in its entirety, almost exclusively of intelligent private school girls, their semi-inappropriate lovers, and their equally semi-inappropriate parents, whose love struggles develop alongside those of their daughters as they both sort out male-female relationships in a confusing era. It is a world of academics with rent-controlled rambling Morningside Heights apartments with African masks on the wall, absent French documentary filmmakers dads, people getting their PhDs in Columbia, Jewish girls and their non-Jewish BFFs, nude sketchers, and passionate tennis players, all of the above having inappropriate encounters, eating bagels and coffee for breakfast, and talking about it all.
If this sounds (minus the African masks) something like a Carter-era Gossip Girls, let me assure you it is nothing like a Carter-era Gossip Girls. What's so wonderful about Klein, in fact, is how free the world she created was of artifice or camp in the least. (It certainly shared enough signifiers with my childhood that I was always wondering why some old professor wasn't offering to sketch me nude while telling me important things about life.)
Love is One of the Choices is not, as it happens, a YA novel (booksellers threw up their hands and put all Klein in the YA section, which is how I chanced upon and obsessively reread Give Me One Good Reason, where a woman happily becomes a single mother by one of her two lovers and names her son Bruno), but it's certainly the story of two teenage girls' sexual coming-of-ages, so whatever. Maggie is a intense, practical girl, tall and good in science, far more blunt than her best friend Caroline, who is artistic, blond, and a little dreamy. I'm just going to reproduce word-for-word their sociological particulars, because Klein did it best the first time:
Caroline liked the idea of people having happy marriages. Her own parents had been divorced when she was one and a half and she rarely saw her own father more than once a year. although he was American, he had lived in Paris and made documentary films there since the divorce. Unlike Maggie, she loved babysitting, precisely because it afforded her a glimpse into the private lives of other people. She loved homes where everything was a little chaotic and noisy, where the children tumbled around, yelling, where the parents hugged each other and said funny, intimate things without thinking about it. It was so unlike the quiet, organized predictable life she led with her mother, a specialist in antiquities at the Parke-Bernet Galleries. Maggie, too, came from what their sociology teacher at Whitman would have called a "single-parent family." Her mother had died of cancer when she was nine and she lived in a rambling West Side apartment with her father, a plump, fifty-year-old Freudian psychoanalyst. But while Caroline was always intensely and painfully aware of not coming from a "regular" family, Maggie seemed either not to notice or to actually feel that being different was kind of an advantage.
I could actually read that kind of Flaubertian character delineation all day, and when you read Klein, you basically can, as the novels mainly consist of said depictions, then the results of various character pairings and attendant ricocheting off. The pairings in question involve Caroline's with Justin Prager, Maggie's mentor and science teacher of both, and Maggie's with Todd, a boy she meets at a debate match. YES, THAT'S RIGHT, I SAID THEIR SCIENCE TEACHER. Guess what else—not so scandalous, in the 70s! Whatever, here's their first sex scene:
When he was inside her, she felt a sense of triumph, as though finally they were equals. She had gotten him here, she had seduced him, so it seemed to her. And now he couldn't go back, he would have to love her. She was sure, based on nothing at all, that he was loving her, that as they moved together it was more than fucking. She let her hands move over his body, feeling amazingly reckless, almost drunk.
"Darling," he said. He had called her his darling.
...Even without coming, the feeling of him as he came made her almost weak with joy. His body was glazed with sweat. She hugged him close to her, fiercely, wanting him never to withdraw, to say in her forever.
And then she totally falls for him and he throws her over at the end and she has to get an abortion, right? Well, no. But hold on, Maggie's about to lose her virginity too:
It now seemed too planned out. It was certain, Maggie decided gloomily, setting the table—Todd was coming to dinner with her and her father—to throw a pall on things. She had already inserted her diaphragm thinking that when the moment came she might be too nervous to get it in right. Even now she wasn't quite sure. That very evening she had put it in and taken it out half a dozen times, like a woman rearranging her hairdo before deciding it looked best the way she had done it the first time. She wondered if you were supposed to feel it. She was acutely aware of it inside her and wondered if that meant it was not where it was supposed to be. They said if a man felt it, he didn't like the feeling. Well, that would be Todd's problem; she had enough to worry about.
And then SHE gets pregnant and has to have an abortion and he leaves her to sleep with all kinds of other girls because he's a young man, right?
Again, no. They all stay together, actually. But not because Klein is an optimist of a fantabulist—but simply because as an author, she's more interested by what happens when people stay together than the various reasons a woman might be left (planning too big a wedding? Not finding latte foam funny?) and the wreckage thereafter (paging Jennifer Hudson and some takeout Chinese!).
It's not that Klein's heroines have no struggles as they make their way through their first relationships: Watching Justin ignore her in the halls of school, Caroline fantasizes about smashing her hand through the glass, and Maggie grimly compares a husband doling out a budget to a wife to a slave owner. But the men of her novel are not enemies, inherent fuckups whose main role in the narrative is to woo, then humiliate, then be forgiven and buy stuff. They're equal partners as capable of receiving pain and giving it, no less perplexed by their own desires and vulnerabilities.
I have no idea what a post-post-AIDS-era readership would make of Klein, who neither ironizes nor slickifies her girls' coming of age, but merely gives them a kind of psycho-sexual freedom absolutely unheard-of nowadays. (Maybe in Iceland? Greenland?) Their unfettered, if not uneventful, exploration of love seems both innocent and wholly revolutionary today, when sex is packaged by Wall Street, Hollywood, Bertelsmann, and the DSM-IV into some reconstituted mass that may or may not be good for you. So, what if we did live in a world where a father could come home to the apartment and genially inquire if a boyfriend was sleeping over, then be happy he was, since he'd wanted to make some more political points? What if we lived in a world where you could tell your mother you were about to move in with your science teacher, and she decided it was okay, since your best friend spoke highly of him? What if all we had to fear were the hearts we'd break or the hearts we'd take? Oh if, oh if, oh if.
• • • • • •
Good lawd. Lots of correct answers to last week's Stardust Hotel/Teddy Bear/Ferris Wheel fiasco, and it is NOT, as I dared dream, Ray Bradbury, but, of course, Into the Dream, by William Sleator. I say of course because I trust the opinion of the hive mind, of course, and not because I have read it, because of course I have not. Now I will, for God's sake. And the winner! by a *hair*! at 2:43 pm by gmail! was one Erin W. Congrats, Erin! Email me at email@example.com with your winner's column request.
Now, for this week's Plotfinder, which comes from reader Hilary S, and which I ALSO can't remember goddamnit!:
A girl in high school:
has a friend who wears orthopedic shoes;
sneakily opens her presents early because she thinks the girl-bully is
going to kill her before Christmas;
cuts her own hair into a stylish geometric haircut, forgetting that unlike
the popular girl in school, her hair frizzes when it's dry;
makes a lemon-meringue pie in home ec class without separating the eggs,
so the pie's all streaky.
That would make it into many major poetry journals of the day undetected, I think. As always, send guesses either by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave them in the comments. Use the same email to send column requests and unselfconscious musings about love and diaphragms—in verse, if the mood strikes.
I think it's time for a heavy hitter for next week's column. Vale! We will be doing A Wrinkle in Time, mofos (I know, it makes me nauseous with love too!!!), followed the next week by Plotfinder winner Rhadika's lezebel-ready request, Sandra Scoppettone's Happy Endings Are All Alike, which is GREAT, if you haven't read it, and please do so if you want anyone around here to have anything to do with you at all.
One more thing: This week on a business trip to Baltimore, I stopped in on my old friend Russell Wattenberg at The Book Thing, a free book donation organization that gives away tens of thousands of books a week to those who need them and those who are just greedy, like me. As it happened, they were sorting new YAs on the floor, and I made off with approximately 78,000 UNFINDABLE classics, or three enormous boxes' worth, YES YOU ARE JEALOUS, for Fine Lines. Like How to Eat Fried Worms and everything. If you would like to repay this karmic debt to this column by giving them some cash or donating some old books yourself (NOT YOUR YAs BUT OTHER BOOKS), the Fine Lines gods will thank you. You also might want to think of taking a pilgrimage down there to eat crabs and snag your own 79,000 copies, although I would give them both a few weeks to replenish.
Thanks to author Alyson Noel at Teen Fiction Cafe for the cover scan.
Love Is One Of The Choices
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]
Earlier: The Girl With The Silver Eyes: Little Pitchers Have Big Pharma
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