Saturday, December 10, 2011

You’re My Best Friend

Does it count as time travel if a character disappears as a child, then reappears as a 17 year old? If not, then maybe my unexpected time travel streak has been broken! I just finished Sweethearts, by Sara Zarr, where Jenna’s former best friend Cameron shows up after a multi-year absence. In those days, Jenna was Jennifer, overweight and outcast, and Cameron was her only friend. (Cameron is a boy, of course. Not because the name is gender specific, but it’s a YA novel, so it had to be a boy) Jennifer was alone most of the time and forced to raise herself while her mother worked full time and went to nursing school. Jennifer’s life was difficult, but Cameron’s life was a nightmare. Cameron’s father physically and mentally abused his wife and children, and after a life-changing incident with Cameron and Jennifer, their link was permanent.

Jennifer’s mother finished school, married a truly kind and gentle man, and, as their circumstances changed, Jennifer changed herself. With rigid self-control, Jennifer became Jenna – a happy, normal girl who has never known isolation or humiliation. The lines between Jenna and Jennifer blur and knit when Cameron suddenly reappears (like time travel!) on her 17th birthday. Jenna has to figure out which parts of her old life she needs to acknowledge to become (in total YA-speak) truly herself.

Cameron’s dad was a monster and, since I had a Mike Brady dad (but with 60% less hipness), I always hope that these horrible abusive dads are exaggerated for effect. I know they’re not. There are parents out there who make The Great Santini look like Mike Brady, himself.

I was really fascinated by the way Zarr treated the relationship between Jenna and her mom. Jenna understood why her mother had gone to school full-time while working full-time, also, but there’s a deep vein of resentment. She never says anything to her mother about being alone so much, but she deeply resented her mother not being there to help her fit in better. She recounts her mother’s often-told  story of how they had survived the lean years with pluck and good humor with near-contempt, but it’s all internal. That anger doesn’t fit what she thinks of as Jenna, and she remembers Jennifer as being too mousy and scared to complain, so that rage has nowhere to go and all Jenna can do is suppress it. Those old Campbell soup commercials where the kid brings his going-back-to-school mom a bowl of soup because he’s worried about her working too hard have taken on a new nuance. He may have poisoned her soup so she’ll have to stay home and do laundry for once.


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