Just as I found that many of my favourite early reads about family and relationships featured bookish heroines, so did the next phase of my reading. Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins is a perfect example, even the cover is an idyllic scene, wherein Vicky is sitting under a tree reading a book, with her other hand resting on the baby of the family, Robert, who is clutching his favourite stuffed toy, Elephant Child. In the background John is wearing a T-shirt and denim shorts and to one side are Suzy and Maggie, the former playing with a stethoscope and the latter fiddling with a doll: the Austin family.
“And if you ask Grandfather for a book, in spite of the fact that there are so many of them, he always knows exactly where and on which shelf it is, and can get it for you without a moment’s hesitation. I feel that way about books, too.” That’s Vicky and it was only her bookishness that I related to; her many siblings, her extended family relationships, her later romances, were uncharted territory for me and i felt increasingly separate from her as I read along in the series, but I returned to Meet the Austins many times, as its worn spine and pages attest.
What struck me most upon re-reading, however, was the quality of the writing; many of the other books that I re-read for the Shelf Discovery Challenge were much more clearly Young Adult or Kidlit, whereas L’Engle’s seem to have what would nowadays be called cross-market potential. And perhaps that is why I was a little disappointed in the other two re-reads in this group.
Sandra Scoppettone’s Happy Endings Are All Alike was very controversial when it was first published. This is long before Gay Pride parades were commonplace and this story of a ::whisper:: lesbian relationship spread through my small-town elementary school like melted butter, with the same enthusiasm shown for Judy Blume’s Forever. Ironically, nobody seemed too fussed about the rape scene (which is fairly explicit), but the idea of two girls being in love? That was something worth talking about. As an adult I’d heard that Scoppettone (I used to follow her mystery series when I was more loyal to the genre) had felt that her work had been reviewed unfairly, had been overshadowed by the controversy and its literary value overlooked. So I was looking forward to re-reading, to re-experiencing this story from an adult perspective.
And if I was only concentrating on the relationship between the two girls, perhaps I would have enjoyed the re-read. Scoppettone shines in the depiction of Jaret and Peggy’s romance; the girls are believable and their romance — albeit complicated by the need for secrecy in a small town and the stereotypical small-mindedness that one would expect from an insulated and privileged community — is engaging. But the other characters didn’t take hold for me.
“Chris stared at his father, wondering what he was expected to say. “Oh, yeah?” was the best he could manage. He wishes he could talk to him, maybe work out some of his problems. It would be neat if they could sit down and rap man-to-man like in books and movies but Chris just didn’t know how to start. Even if he could think of an opening he couldn’t imagine really rapping with his father. Whatever Chris said, he was sure his dad would put him down, criticize, lecture.” 54
The relationship between Val Hoffman and Chloe Fox in Deborah Hautzig’s Hey Dollface is also vivid and credible. It was easy to relate to the intensity of their friendship: “It was great having someone I didn’t have to explain things to — Chloe just knew what I was talking about. We didn’t just listen to each other; we heard each other too.” (18) But the drama surrounding their questioning feels a little forced to me re-reading as an adult.
“But then Val became confused about her feelings. She had never had a friend like this before. What if it was more than friendship? What if Chloe was feeling the same way?” ::cue melodramatic music:: Hautzig‘s narrative read quickly and easily but, although I can’t pin how exactly (and don’t want to spoil one part of the book that might illustrate this point), Hey Dollface seemed to read a little more as a cautionary tale and those looking for a true romance would likely be disappointed.
But not disappointed in Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World, which was recently recommended on Aarti’s With Reverent Hands blog feature, and which I devoured in a couple of hours, getting a good giggle out of this Reading Connection along the way:
“It would be great if it was all clear-cut the way it is in Madeleine L’Engle books. Where you know who the bad guys are and it’s all important and beautiful and it means that you can communicate telepathically with dolphins.”
Nic is talking to Katrina and Battle about religion there, but her comment could as easily have been applied to her debate about her emerging sexuality, whether she is identifying as lesbian (witness her intense attraction to Battle) or bisexual (based on her past relationship with a boy). Ironically Nic and Battle are asking themselves the same kinds of questions that Val and Chloe are asking themselves in Hey Dollface, but somehow the uncertainly in the newer novel reads less cautionary and more celebratory. “Maybe I shouldn’t try to label everything I feel, but right now, it’s definitely love.”
Perhaps because it combines a summer-camp setting (for gifted — and suitably precocious — kids, whose dialogue might have read as too-smart-assed outside this context) with a sweet romance, this was definitely my favourite read of this trio.
Anyone else doing any re-reading lately? Or been pleasantly surprised having followed up another reader’s recommendations?
Note: L’Engle, Scoppettone and Hautzig were chosen for the Shelf Discovery Challenge, the first two inspired by the book and the latter as my own choice. There are still two more Shelf Discovery reading Saturdays.