Girl by Blake Nelson is the book that taught me timelessness. That sounds strange, considering that it was published in 1994 and is actually pretty rooted in the emergence of the grunge culture, but it's true. I look at some books today, full of pop culture references and technology, and I think "this book is going to be out of date in 6 months." But Girl talks endlessly about bands and popularity, only it does so only through fictional references. So we understand what kinds of music Andrea listens to and what kind of person she is, but we don't think "oh God, she's into Nirvana? That's so 1994." And that's why Girl fourteen years old and is almost as fresh and perfect today as it was the first day it came out.

I don't remember how I heard about Girl--for some reason I have an impression that I read about it in a women's magazine like Cosmopolitan or Sassy or Jane. Although I didn't really read those women's magazines. And why would a women's magazine talk about a YA book? I guess it's possible...especially Sassy might--that was a good magazine. Anyway, somehow I heard about it, and bought it and read it and now, fourteen years later, it's still one of the best first person narrator YA books about a girl that I've ever read.*

Girl is the story of Andrea Marr, a girl (surprise!) who over the course of her high school years becomes a real person. She starts out wanting what every high school freshman wants, to fit in, and ends up hanging out in the alternative rock scene, due in part, to a friend of hers and in part to her own desire to become something more than average.**

Girl is not a plot-centric book. And I know that I've criticised books where nothing happens before, but the difference between Girl and those other books is that you know from the very first page that Girl is not about plot, but about voice. This is the first line:

It was October of my sophomore year and it was raining and I was sitting in my room with my geometry homework watching it get dark outside.

Yeah...this is not a book where a lot of stuff happens. I mean, things certainly do happen--Andrea meets people and thinks things and falls in love and grows up--but this book is not going to have the typical Freytagian plot structure, with the whole exposition, action, climax, denoument thing going on. Instead, Girl is about voice, about how completely Andrea becomes the voice in your head telling you what's happening to her.

And she does, man. Here she is talking about a fight she had with her friend Darcy, a more conventional girl than Andrea will end up being:

At school the next day Darcy came straight to my locker and apologized. She said that her loyalty was with me because she knew that Renee was always going to put us down but that Mark really did like me and she really liked Scott Haskell and could I just stay with Mark for a little while longer? "How long?" I said, "Long enough for you to have sex with Scott?" And she said no and that I shouldn't talk like that and didn't I know that Cindy and Dave has sex every day after school? Or that Terri Ferguson had sex with a boy from Central Catholic? And then she said it was almost summer and we were almost juniors and if you liked a boy you were crazy not to at least try it, and as long as you used a condom and everything, why not? I could think of some reasons why not but I didn't say them. And I couldn't believe Cindy and Dave did it because Cindy was so ugly in junior high and people used to wonder is she'd ever get a boyfriend and now, not only did she have one, she was having sex with him. Darcy said they went to Cindy's every day after school and did it on her brother's waterbed and Dave told all his friends and Cindy bragged at lunch and showed her diaphragm and we both said how disgusting diaphragms were and how you had to be fitted.

That is voice.
The long paragraph meandering from topic to topic regardless of importance; the name dropping (that, in context, makes more sense--we know who Mark and Scott and Renee are, for example, but Cindy and Dave and Terri Ferguson just exist as names, topics of gossip, not characters); the things that Andrea keeps from Darcy ("I could think of some reasons why not but I didn't say them") even though Darcy is supposed to be her best friend; even the almost complete lack of commas. This is a teenage girl.

In addition to the gorgeous voice, there's also these stunning moments that stay with you after the book is done. Andrea gets a red dress with cows on it, the symbol of her edgier life, and if you ask me about Girl if I haven't read it in a while, I remember the cow print dress. Or Todd Sparrow, the boy (street kid?) Andrea meets who seems like a fantasy of freedom and independence and who, just by existing, pushes Andrea to new things.***

~~~

*Oh, and there was some big controversy about "Blake Nelson" being a man, which I don't really understand. Like, when Wally Lamb wrote She's Come Undone, and somehow it was some sort of miracle that he was able to understand a woman long enough to write a whole novel from a woman's point of view, like women are a totally foreign species that could never be fathomed by anyone with a Y chromosome. Here's a hint--we're not.

It was a similar sort of thing when people found out that Blake Nelson was a man. To which I responded "wasn't Blake Carrington a man? Why are you surprised?" But apparently some people were.

**I just read the blurb on the back of the book, and, yeah, I totally heard about this book from Sassy--Nelson apparently published some stories in the magazine before the book came out. Also, the blurb calls Girl "the Catcher in the Rye for the 'Grunge' generation," which could NOT be further from the truth (I know they mean it as a compliment, but it's really not as complimentary as they think), and please, God, don't let my book have a reference to Catcher in the Rye, because it's a sure sign that the book is being marketed to adults because it is "important" and not to kids because it is entertaining, thank you.

***If you are a fan of My So-Called Life, then you will understand when I say that Todd Sparrow is the Jordan Catalano of this book. If you are not a fan of My So-Called Life, then we can't be friends anymore until you get yourself to Netflix and see it. Sorry, a girl's gotta have some standards.

2 comments:

Dare I even suggest that once a person saw "Freaks & Geeks," all other high school shows dropped off the radar?

Men writing female characters? The horror. People need to get over this. I enjoy writing female characters and you're correct: the sexes aren't that different. The only thing women generally get wrong about men is how often men think about sex. A woman will say "men think about sex all the time" never realizing that men think about sex even more than that.

Only for girls could there be a magazine named "Sassy." I'm trying to think of a similar title for young boys. Perhaps you could come up with something?

Friday, December 12, 2008 at 9:27:00 AM EST  

You can suggest that, Anonymous, but you would wrong. I've seen F&G and, while it was certainly a great show, it's no My So-Called Life.

I don't think women get men wrong insomuch as I think that a book realistically depicting how much men think about sex would be boring. It's like how books (almost) always leave out going to the bathroom (and probably should). It's a fact of life, but it doesn't add a whole helluva lot to the story.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 7:15:00 AM EST  

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