Those of us who have made it past our teens may look back on the relationships we formed then with a mixture of longing and relief. The connections we make in our teens, both platonically and romantically, can feel passionate, exhilarating, and overwhelming. This can be wonderful — how many people fondly reminisce about first love? — terrible, or both. Unfortunately, the emotional highs that come with being a teen are also accompanied by seemingly bottomless lows and poor decision-making. This week’s book club is all about those young attachments we form that can forever shape who we are.
1. Juno’s Swans by Tamsen Wolff ($17): “Listen, I like a love story. And this would be a love story except that Sarah wrecked it, just came on in and jumped on its head casually in cleats, so instead I’m rooting around, but I’m not even finding the punctured remains. I know there are countless ways to make an exit, family who leave and friends who turn into strangers. But this. I could not have imagined it. If she hadn’t loved me once maybe she wouldn’t have left me to the dogs, to the wilderness, to my own devices, which as it turns out, all seem to amount to the same thing. Even with everything that’s happened, I keep circling the loss of her like an animal worrying a wound. I need one of those huge cones they put around dogs’ necks to keep them from doing this, from licking the painful place again and again. (I’m in love with her.)”
It’s 1988 and the summer before Nina and her best friend Titch’s last year of high school in New Hampshire. The two have big plans for their summer alone in Cape Cod, including acting lessons and working at a catering hall together to build up both work and life experience. Nina particularly is searching for something greater; she longs for a connection, faintly jealous of the way Titch’s mother looks at her. Nina’s mother has been largely absent; her father left the family, and her grandfather froze to death when Nina was finally able to spend time with her mother. Nina has spent most of her time with her grandmother, who has begun to exhibit signs of dementia, and recently ended an ill-advised “relationship” with a male theatre teacher at her high school. So, when Sarah, a young college student employed as an assistant acting coach, enters the picture, Nina immediately falls in love and forgets about nearly everything else.
Nina and Sarah quickly enter into a passionate relationship, cohabiting and absorbed in one another; this leads to some serious friction with Titch (a nickname, ironically, for Harmony), who feels like she no longer matters, and some serious drama from the high school drama teacher. Inevitably, of course, there is heartbreak, but also growth and self-discovery. Filled with details about Reagan-era America, from the anguish of the Challenger disaster and the AIDS epidemic to the glossy seductiveness of pop culture, Juno’s Swans is about one of those summers that is all too brief but stays in the heart forever.
2. Three Little Lies by Laura Marshall ($26): “Karina drew breath, and I readied myself for an exhaustive dissection of the two boys, but then the car door opened again at the back, and a head appeared. The first thing we noticed was her hair, a shining sheet of bright gold all down her back that made me think of the shiny paper around chocolate coins. Then it swung around like a cloak and we saw her face, heart-shaped and perfect apart from a thin, red scar on her right cheek. I heard Karina gasp and I knew I’d done the same. As if she’d heard us, the girl swung her head around and gave us a scornful, challenging glare. I dropped my eyes guiltily and Karina became absorbed in her fingernails, blowing them dry as if her life depended on it. The girl let us wither for a moment more, before flicking her hair around again and sauntering into the house.”
In 2005, a new family moves in to the large corner house in 17-year-old Ellen’s neighborhood, and the lives of Ellen and her best friend Karina are never quite the same. Ellen is absolutely enchanted by the Monktons, who are all musical talents; opera singer Olivia and bassoonist Tony live what seems to be every teen’s dream lifestyle, and their sons Nicholas and Daniel do well under Karina’s critical, boy-crazy eye. It’s their goddaughter Sasha, though, that gets Ellen’s attention: She’s beautiful, worldly, and volatile, and earning her approval feels like a gift. Ellen and Sasha become closer, which leaves Karina feeling left out, but it’s hard for anyone to resist the glamorous parties at the Monktons’ house. Not only do they feel both wild and sophisticated, but Olivia and Tony let the teens drink with the adults.
When Karina accuses Daniel of rape during one of those parties, things suddenly don’t seem as perfect. All three of the girls are witnesses at his trial, and he’s convicted. Years later, 30-year-old Ellen and Sasha are living together as flatmates in London when Daniel is finally released from his probation, and Sasha mysteriously goes missing, not for the first time. Ellen is afraid for all their sakes that what happened in the courtroom has come back to haunt them. Told alternately through Ellen, Olivia, and Karina’s viewpoints, the novel examines the intensity of young friendship and our desire to believe, or not believe, certain truths.
3. Ponti by Sharlene Teo ($26): Szu, at 16, is a certified weirdo. A misfit from the rest of her schoolmates by any standards, she’s doing poorly in school, the self-proclaimed “bottom of the bell curve.” She can’t stop talking about her beautiful mother Amisa, to whom Szu feels she’ll never measure up. Now a single mother who supports her family by telling fortunes, Amisa was formerly a famous actress who still receives gifts of fruit and flowers from men passing by on the street. (It’s slightly ironic, when you consider that her fame comes from a trio of horror films where she played a ghost who sucked the life out of men.) Szu finally sees the potential from an out to her loneliness when a new girl, Circe, shows up at school. Circe is witty and caustic, and the two take to each other like a house on fire — which then promptly sucks the oxygen out of the room.
Like Three Little Lies, the novel is told from three women’s perspectives, and bounces between past and present: Amisa tells us how she gained fame despite her circumstances, Szu sharing the development of her electric friendship with Circe, and Circe, years after Amisa’s death and far apart from Szu, now dealing with that friendship’s repercussions. Circe is now in charge of the social media for the reboot of Amisa’s horror franchise, and is haunted by the friendship she used to have. Teo, a Singaporean writer who lives in the UK, won the first Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award for her novel, which shows that even a short-lived friendship can change us for life if it’s powerful enough.
“Ours is a convent school, the Whampoa Convent of the Eternally Blessed, but there is nothing pious about the things teenage girls inflict upon each other. In this place it is not the weird girls, the too freakish to engage with, who are minced meat, but the less well-off, the ones who can’t afford good schoolbags or sports shoes, or else the weaklings, the watery-eyed and too quick to please. I’ve seen girls torn to pieces for agreeing with the wrong thing, I’ve seen girls strung up like joints of char siu or roast duck in the dirtiest toilets, panties exposed, gulping back tears for offending one of the crocodiles or associates of the crocodiles. Always in some minute, impossible way — blinking for too long so as to appear contemptuous, coughing too comically, saying some misjudged, stupid thing. I don’t believe in holy ghosts, but right at the start of my time here (three forever years ago, at that inauspicious age of thirteen) I used to say this prayer every morning, in time to my footsteps before I entered the gates: I pray to birdshit,/I pray to the trees,/I pray to the walkway,/I pray to the construction cranes./Nobody be bad to me,/Let me be okay./Amen, amen, amen.”
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