I’ve been trying to read more books by women authors lately. It’s not that I’ve ever intentionally gone out of my way to avoid them, but when I look at all the books in my apartment, I’m a little disturbed by how overwhelmingly male the authors are. Lucky for me there’s a shitload of new books out by some amazing women authors. Here are some of the latest I’ve checked out:
In Zanesville by Jo Anne Beard
I’ll shoot straight with you: I wanted to like this more than I did. It’s not that the prose is bad; it’s actually quite good–pointed, concise, and well within keeping of the idea of a fourteen-year-old narrator. And it wasn’t that the characters were bad, either; again, quite the opposite: they were painfully real, as was the friendship between our narrator–who goes unnamed, for some reason–and her best friend Felicia (Flea). What troubled me was that this relationship was pretty much the entire story. And while I have no doubt that it’s possible to pull this off, there wasn’t much to unify the girls’ many misadventures. Rather, Beard s jumps from scene to scene without any larger objective in mind, making it difficult for the reader to settle into the story.
We begin the story with a babysitting gig gone terribly wrong, and then immediately abandon that in favor of something else entirely, and then something else, on and on with very little narrative thread to keep us anchored. As for conflict, it’s there, but it doesn’t really rear its head until halfway through the book (though when it does, it’s good reading).
Still, there are some very colorful characters here and some very compelling scenes, particularly when the element of boys is introduced into the girls’ insular little world. And at the end of the day, that’s sort of all we really want from a story. Most of us, at least. Still, if only Beard could have gone a step further in demonstrating to us how we as readers fit into that little world.
The Adults by Allison Espach
For most men, our simultaneous bafflement of and amazement with women starts around adolescence (I guess this would be the case for most women too, though I find it best not to speak on behalf of the fairer sex because that usually gets me into trouble): all of sudden these people you’ve been around your entire life take on a peculiar air of mystery, and then of course as we all know, we spend pretty much all of high school trying desperately just to be simultaneously noticed and overlooked.
The fact is, men never really outgrow this sense of high school confusion. We like to think we do, and some of us do a good job of pretending like we have (e.g. political pundits, the cast of Jersey Shore), but we’re always lugging around some inkling of self-consciousness from that period in our lives, some vestigal sense of wonder/fear over women.
And so, strange as it may sound, maybe this is why I’m drawn to books with teenage female protagonists, because I’ve never really gotten over my belief that they are the most bizarre creatures on earth. They are about the exact opposite of me–and guys like me–in almost every way. Which makes them interesting in a literary sense. Allison Espach seems to understand this. Or at least Emily Vidal, the narrator in The Adults, does. Like our unnamed main character in In Zanesville, Emily is mired in that viscious state of teenage awkwardness; she is both fascinated and repulsed by her very existence. And like our Zanesville narrator, Emily is desperately seeking out people to love her–her catty girlfriends, her depressive mother and filandering father, and most notably her freshman English teacher Mr. Basketball, with whom she carries on a tumultuous relationship for years to come.
But The Adults differs in the degree of introspection that our characters are permitted. Emily looks at even the most inocuous events in her life as potentially revelatory, a trait that is manifest largely in the keen musicality of the prose.
Admittedly, the story does come close to being longwinded; this has a lot to do with the years’ long back-and-forth between Emily and Mr. Basketball which, by the time she has entered grad school, begins to lose its risque’ charm. Still, even with this, what you’ve got here is one of the most eloquent coming-of-age tales to be released over the past few years. Espach demonstrates, with striking accuracy, that while our problems may change as we get older, the feelings they engender in us never really do. At least, not in the way you would hope when you’re fifteen.