Adolescence: a Theme in Powerful Novels

Adolescence: a Theme in Powerful Novels

What does a book published in 2002 by Alice McDermott have to do with a new release by Margot Livesey? The answer: they reveal the strong and vivid seeds of adulthood in their adolescent characters.

Alice McDermott captured my attention with her short but amazing novel, THAT NIGHT. Published in 1987, McDermott explores suburbia of post WWII where life should be perfect, where parents have created families and a culture that cannot be challenged. But when it is, when a “guy” who doesn’t meet the picture of a future husband is determined to have a family’s daughter, we read this:

That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried get limp in their hands.”  We can picture that era, the leather jackets, the sideburns. But the passion translates into any age.

In a CHILD OF MY HEART, published in 2000, McDermott’s the main character, Theresa, is on the cusp of change, wavering between the security of childhood and the lure of the life that adults lead, and of course, sex. The novel begins with Theresa’s voice:

“I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist. There was also, for a while, a litter of wild rabbits…They were wet and blind,…so small it was difficult to know if their bodies moved with the beating of their hearts or the rise of their breaths.”

And maybe it was difficult for Theresa to know where her developing body, her own beating heart’s growth might take her. She watched these children on the seashore in summer. People bare their skin. Children do too, and she is there to protect them. Because later in the novel, when Theresa finds herself enthrall to an older man, she tells us: “You could reimagine, rename things all you wanted, but it was flesh somehow, that would not relent.”

Adolescence is definitely that period in life where you are torn between the rubric of home and the lure of any place, activity, person—who is not a metaphor for family, rules and order. It’s a vivid, surprising time. No wonder talented authors take advantage of it.

Thus, I fell in love with the writing of Margot Livesey when first reading EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE. The tale begins on the day of Eva’s birth, which is also the day of her mother’s death. But over time, some companions that Eva cannot see, arrive to protect and guide her. Eva reflects: “…but my loneliness was like the slow gas bubbling up from the pond in the woods, poisoning even the sweetest of days. How could I turn away those two who wanted to be my friends when no one else did?’‘ The novel is the story of the choices Eva makes and how the “companions” guide her in those choices. It is a beautiful story. 

Livesey’s latest novel, THE BOY IN THE FIELD, once again probes the whims, fevers and worries of adolescence. It also casts a darker cloud over what can be a tempestuous time in life.

Reviews promise: (thanks to Jenny Rosenstrach in the NYT)   In the broadest sense, Margot Livesey’s …“The Boy in the Field” is a whodunit. Who attacked this boy in the middle of the day and left him for dead in a field? What would have happened if three unsuspecting siblings walking home from school hadn’t caught a glimpse of his red sock from the road? Why this boy?

Three sibling, Mathew, Zoe and Duncan come upon the above scene. They do what they can: one stays with the boy, one waves down a car on the road to call for help. One wanders the scene. Their gestures are open and fearless. Their gestures are the seeds to their growing. But what they do not know, and what Livesey probes in this fascinating story, is that seeing the “boy in the field” will change all of their lives. That change will even spread to their parents, the mother a solicitor (this is England) and their father who works a forge.

“You’re going to be all right,” Zoe said.

The boy gave a small sigh. His lips moved. The sigh became a word.

Each of them caught it. No more words followed.

But that was all it took for these three children’s lives to become attached to change. 

KEEP READING—READING IS A GIFT

KEEP READING—READING IS A GIFT

Dear Reader,

The illustration above caught my eye, the awakening and vivid colors: she’s on a train (I like reading on trains, on airplanes, even if I’m a passenger in a long car ride) and the word LIFE on the magazine or book she’s reading. Like the apple on her tray, the cup of water—reading is life-giving, reading should always accompany us on our life’s journey. And notice the colorful stamps on her luggage, stamps people once used to reveal, to celebrate where they had been.

A bookcase full of books or a Kindle jammed with titles, does the same thing, celebrates where you have been. Because reading is always about taking a journey, about opening your mind and emotions to someone’s ideas.

DAILY NEWS SOURCES—NEWSPAPERS, THE NET, MAGAZINES, TELEVISION

 In today’s society, newspapers are struggling, but if you happen to subscribe to the magazine THE WEEK (I do) you will find major newspapers and magazines are still very important in pinning down stories that profoundly affect the bottom lines of our lives.

True, that many people now get the news online—or rely only on television news. But that doesn’t always provide you with an analysis, an interpretation to guide you through the pitfalls of opinion. When you READ, you can pause and evaluate a situation, you can compare the writer’s point of view to what You already know, what You have already read or an opinion You have maintained for a long time. Reading helps you grow, because it often challenges an idea or opinion you have held for a long time.

When you engage with a different point of view—that’s a good thing. Yes, we bring personal experience to almost every idea we encounter. But staying lock-step without looking around to investigate, might lead us to a dark place—or the wrong place.

And getting the NEWS isn’t always politics. News can be about an advancement in medicine, the pros and cons of self-driving cars or CBD oils, the latest advances in tech—anything you are currently interested in, anything that might change the society, the environment we share.

POETRY, ESSAY, NOVEL, NON-FICTION, QUIRKY

To stimulate your appetite for READING, I pulled some books off my shelves.

POETRY: Billy Collins, our poet laureate from 2001-2003; verses from ONLY CHILD (he wishes he had a sibling)

I would gaze into her green eyes

and see my parents, my mother looking out

of Mary’s right eye and my father staring out of her left.

which would remind me of what an odd duck

I was as a child, a little prince, a loner,

…and maybe we would have another espresso and a pastry

And I would always pay the bill and walk her home.

ESSAY: Marilynne Robinson, from WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE? 

The U.S is in many ways a grand experiment. Let us take Iowa as an example. What would early 19th century settles on the open prairie do first? Well…they found a university, which is now about 170 years old. Agriculture became, as it remains, the basis of the state economy. How did the university develop in response to this small, agrarian population? It became…a thriving and innovative center for the arts–theater, music, painting and, of course, creative writing. ..the arts are the signature of the place and have been for generations.

NOVEL: Alice McDermott, from CHILD OF MY HEART

...all their interest and enthusiasm was reserved for the places they had left. Like exiles, their delight was not in where they now found themselves, but in whatever they could remember about the place, and the time, they had abandoned. 

NONFICTION: Margaret Robinson Rutherford, PhD from PERFECTLY HIDDEN DEPRESSION

As I’ve stressed before, the characteristics of perfectly hidden depression, in moderation, can be helpful. But when they begin to govern every aspect of your being, they can become a huge problem. It becomes self-destructive when your perfectionist critical voice is screaming at you nonstop in the background. 

QUIRKY: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS (quirky, because this little book of 48 pages could change the world.)

Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture… My own definition of a feminist is a man or woman who says, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.”

HAPPY READING, Beth

P.S. Thanks to amreading.com for the photo.