More interesting bloggers than I am have reviewed this book:
And one or other of those posts, I no longer remember which one, made me check out a local copy of the book last winter for cold-weather comfort reading. Ever since, I’ve meant to do my own post, and I am tired of having it on my mind, so you get it now.
I will not recount the plot, since Moira, Simon, Jenny, Kat, and indeed Amazon will do that for you.
I first read this book when I was maybe ten, and I probably read it a couple more times when I was quite young, say 13 or 14. Then I forgot about it (or at least forgot any details that would let me find it again) until I ran across it in my late 20s and had a lovely nostalgic wallow in some out-of-town library: I can visualize perfectly the room in which I sat but I have no idea what city it was in or why I was there. After that it faded again until last winter. So I have several distinct sets of memories and feelings about it.
At ten, I liked the idea of disguise and trying to find out about other people’s lives. Nothing else about Shannon’s life stuck with me. At that point, I thought she was quite grown up. (She’s 18, well traveled but very young in other ways.) When I found the book in my 20s, the reason for her pretending to be a country girl and working in a diner was the part I rediscovered with pleasure, along with the struggle to figure out who she was and what she wanted to do when the number of available options was confusing. Life is simple when there is One Clear Path to becoming what you know you must be or do; but when you have a lot of talents and a lot of people encouraging you in the direction they think would be best for you, it’s much harder to find your own way.
Back in my early teens, before I ever kissed a boy or had one around to kiss, it was the boys (Dave and Sherry), and Shannon’s reactions to them, that interested me. At that age, I did not want to Do It, but I did want to know what Doing It was like, and how you got around to it, or maybe how you put it off, and Greensleeves was, in a fairly chaste way, reasonably explicit about sexual feelings:
“The plain fact is that I wanted to walk straight into his arms and hang on like a limpet, and for a split second it was perfectly clear to me that I didn’t care a bean for anything else. I knew if I moved one inch toward him right then, I’d get so tangled up in his life that it would take ten years to dislodge me. And I had a vivid picture of what ten years with Dave Kulka would be like—the two of us fighting like wolverines but never able to get free of each other.”
Eventually they do kiss, and at first Shannon likes it, and then the analytic side of her brain kicks in again and she’s revolted, and that’s that. But! There’s still Sherry (George Sherrill), who is much nicer; they’ve been getting to know each other slowly and he is in love with her, wants her to go to college at the same school he attends, wants to marry her. After a lovely day at a summer party, he kisses her:
“And immediately I knew there was no reason at all why he shouldn’t, and every reason why he should. He loved me, I loved him, and people who loved each other kissed each other. What’s more they didn’t hold out on each other, either, or draw inward lines. I must not hold back from Sherry any longer—it wasn’t fair. I suddenly decided that the moment had come to find out whether I was playing for keeps. . . . I obliterated my inward line. I can’t say precisely how I did this; probably I don’t need to. Anybody knows. It’s instinct or something . . . I found out one thing, right away . . . Sherry was as combustible as anybody else, and fully as able as Dave to ignite emotions in me too powerful to control. It was all too easy, and it happened all too swiftly, and the conflagration soon rose high and bright enough to scare us both.”
Okay. That inward line. What the hell was it? What were the electrical sparks with Dave? How was it that she could kiss Sherry without any burning fires until she kissed Dave and then she and Sherry were scaring each other so she thought they’d be married within a year unless she ran away? My poor little pubescent brain really struggled with these questions. Obviously Dave is supposed to be the bad-news guy (a driven artist!) with whom you have chemistry but nothing else, and Sherry is the good, responsible guy, who is smart, and nice, and tends to play it safe rather than take risks. Good husband material: if you want a husband when you’re 18 and think you might want a career of your own if you could get several sets of parents off your back for long enough to work out what you want. Anyway, though I did not really understand how all this worked, it was vaguely reassuring for a young reader: (a) there are nice guys; (b) you can easily tell the difference between them and the bad-news types; (c) crossing that inward line will ignite what Captain Awkward calls pants-feelings for a nice guy whom you like a lot and haven’t really felt sparks about before.
Well. It would be pretty to think so.
Shannon wants so much to marry Sherry that she runs away, doesn’t see him for two years, and at the end of the book is just about to meet him again, now that she’s had two years at a university and “toughened a bit” as well as having some small successes with writing and theater work.
My current 50-something, cynical-old-bat self had very different reactions to this book than any of my younger selves. For one thing, I was highly doubtful about the academic side of Fremont College, Sherry’s studies, and Professor Edmonds, a math prof who tutors Sherry in ancient Greek. In 1968, maybe things were different in academia . . . but I did grow up in a college town; I remember or have heard a lot of bits and pieces about how things were back then, and this book’s details don’t hang together. Sherry thinks that in graduate school “You can really browse around” among courses. Um, no, that’s when you can really get specialized.
Also, 1968: even allowing that that was the publication date, and that the events might be set at some earlier point, it can’t be earlier than the 1950s (given various lifestyle clues), and no man in the book is concerned about the draft. In the ’50s it would have been Korea; in the ’60s, Vietnam. La la la. All the young people are happily being young and even when they have Serious Thoughts About Life and Learning, they’re not thinking that they should go to college (or get married) in order to get a draft deferment.
Again, wildly different from my experience and understanding of that time.
As for Dave and Sherry, the Older Man Dave, at 25, now looks very young indeed to me, though I agree that he’s too old for Shannon and that she did well to steer clear of him at that point in her life. If she were 25 to his 32, however, I’d think they were a good match. Now that I’ve kissed more than a few men, including some friends with whom I tried very hard to step across some inward line, I agree whole-heartedly with Dave: “Things like this don’t happen very often.” Sure, if you’re young and healthy you can work up some sexual energy for lots of people, but the “kick galvanic” (to quote from A. S. Byatt instead of McGraw) is rare. I might have been better off, at 16, and also at 23, had I been able to get the rational side of my brain to kick in about a couple of guys who were really not good for me, despite the amazing chemistry. This is not to say that they were bad boys. They were nice, smart, reasonable people, who eventually married other women and, so far as I know, are living happily ever after. I just mean that in both cases we did spend about five years entangled and fighting like wolverines (at least intermittently), because we were not well matched. I did try, at a couple of other times, to combust with men who seemed like they’d be good partners. I was even engaged to one of them, once, and then I met Mr 23 and the fire actually caught, and there we were.
I should have realized at least by my late teens that a book aimed at teenage girls in an era in which the Pill was pretty new, and abortion was not yet legal, was not going to be a good guide to what to do about sexual feelings. It’s going to pack a message about sublimation inside an attractive package of thinnish plot and breathless narration. I was never particularly convinced by Sherry, and now it annoys me that he wants to make a living at something he’s good at but doesn’t like, and “leave his mind free to go on finding out things he’d no need to know and never meant to use, and wondering how it felt to live in places he might never bother to go to.” I want him to want something. His plan for a life with Shannon also annoys me: that he’d “forget the graduate school notion” (even if he hasn’t a clue what graduate school entails), get a job, earn enough that they can get married after her second year of college, that he’s not really thinking about what she might want to do apart from marry him. In fact, it seems like his notion of marrying Shannon is another way of deferring his dreams of traveling and finding out what it’s like to live in other places.
Dave Kulka has a good idea of what he wants, and what he’s good at, and knows that he works better when he feels like he’s fighting something. This may mean he’ll never be a good choice of husband, but it’s hard to tell. Some people are like that when they’re young, and adaptable enough to find new ways to work once they’re successful. The last word Kulka utters in the book is “interesting.” I now find him the most interesting character. Although the ending seems to allow hope that Shannon and Sherry will finally get together, I think it’s more likely that their meeting will fall flat—both of them having changed in two years—and that Shannon will eventually find a man who suits her both intellectually and physically.