We Can’t Stand the Thought of Watching Ourselves Die Out
I talk the big talk about reading books by and for young women because we’re the majority minority, starved for representation as not beautiful creatures but as human beings and I’ve read my share of absolutely horrendous literature, which is why I’m so excited about this pair of books I’m reviewing. Amy Zhang was a high schooler from Sheboygan, Wisconsin when she wrote “Falling Into Place,” a stalwart mediation on life and death and what it means to be an adolescent girl in this era, and Brandy Colbert wrote “Pointe” which contains what might be my absolute favorite teenage girl protagonist of all time.
I hate physics and “Falling Into Place” is all about physics, the laws that govern our very movement from the moment we wake up in the grey morning light to the moment we fall asleep at the end of the day. Force equals mass times acceleration, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For somebody who has taken a sum total of three years of physics, it’s downright embarrassing that it’s all I really remember, that the lighter I am, the faster I have to be in order to accomplish what I want and I want so very much, too much. I must be wittier and darker and quicker and play the game of life better than anybody else since I’m so small and thin and fragile, inclined to fall apart at the first hard touch I don’t expect. Liz is not a sympathetic protagonist, but none of the good ones ever are because on the whole human beings are not sympathetic when we know their every ticking thought. We’re mean and petty and selfish, strong and weak in all the wrong ways and somehow eternally wrong in our constructions in a world that doesn’t really seem to be meant for us.
What does it mean to be a bitch? I hate using that word because it feels ugly, and I think it’s supposed to be no matter how blasé it’s become in common culture. This novel explores what it means to be a bitch, to be unfaithful and disrespectful and to not care in a way that bypasses the posit of not caring; “Liz discovered bitchiness, decided selfishness was essential to survival, and became the person she would come to hate. But that was okay, because everyone else acted the same way.” It’s so hard to toe the line between being righteously self centered and wrongfully self-involved and so much of adolescence is coming to that balance, and I personally often erred too far on either side and I paid for it. My personal favorite character in the novel was Julia though because although I’m in reality a combination of Julia and Liz, my best qualities are personified in Julia, “She was a little too smart, a little too graceful, a little too conscientious for this hammered crowd.”
I have a tendency when I’m drunk to be an exaggerated version of myself so it’s never as if I’m a different person but merely inclined to act when I otherwise would snarkily comment on the sidelines. My friend says I’m always nice to girls except if I have good reason not to be and excruciatingly polite but baseline flirtatious to boys, which unfortunately makes them believe I’m in love with them. (Spoiler alert: I’m usually not and if I were, I’d never even deign to speak to them because I’m too proud, read: cowardly, to approach them even for the sake of possible happiness.) In that way, I’m almost a Kennie, “She’s the kind of person who says things that make jaws drop. She likes it when people stare and talk and judge, because it means that someone is always thinking about her.” Or rather I used to be because these days, I’m nicer and calmer and sweeter not because it’s expected of me but because it’s more relaxing for me to not face the umbrage of hate I previously endured for speaking my mind. It’s a form of growing up, and at 21, I’ve realized it’s not a good trait to casually call myself a bitch in the way that means I unequivocally hurt others with and without meaning to because I must coexist with all 7 billion people on this planet and it is better for the health of me and those around me that I at least try to play nice. It’s a novel state of being, and I enjoy it.
“Pointe” was to be quite blunt about it, one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read as both as someone recovering from an eating disorder and as someone who’s a young woman who has learned first hand just how difficult and hurtful men can be on an individual level. The protagonist is a young black ballerina named Theo who had an affair with a grown man when she was only 13 years old, and suffered from trauma induced anorexia after he abandoned her and kidnapped her best friend Donovan. Chris lied about his identity to a precocious 13-year-old Theo, plying her with compliments to her maturity and grooming her in a way that befits only the rapist he was rather than the loving boyfriend he was playing at being, and it was quite surely, chilling in the reality of it. I went through the Goodreads reviews which were, predictably enough, reeking of sexism and racism because how dare a traumatized teenage protagonist show signs of her trauma, compartmentalizing and focusing on silly teenage drama rather than the main issue plaguing her mind, how dare she return to her previous anorexic behavior when faced with the reemergence of the man who triggered her into it in the first place? It says something that the worst thing Theo actually does is sleep with a boy with a girlfriend, not ideal obviously, but absolutely paltry compared to grooming and raping a girl and yet, Theo receives more criticism for the former than Chris does for the latter.
I personally found the dichotomy between Theo’s affection for Hosea and her fixation on Chris to be highly telling, since clearly, her experiences haunted her making her almost unfit for a proper relationship, which she seems well aware of. I didn’t get the impression she even wanted to date Hosea, because she was a very smart girl; she knew she wasn’t ready for it but she was still inclined to sleep with him because she needed somebody and sex is complicated enough to simplify things. At least that’s what it feels like as a confused teenager. But, I can tell you first hand that it never fixes things because sex is never just sex because we have sex with people and even if the sex itself doesn’t matter, the people we have sex with do matter, and we can’t simply forgo humanity just because we’d rather be inhuman and invincible. There was a quote from “Falling Into Place” that I think is appropriate here because substance abuse is the same as sex when it comes down to it, “She could feel the alcohol in her blood, making the world oddly delicate, as though everything had turned brittle and was on the verge of falling apart and Liz Emerson was the only substantial thing on the planet. And it was nice, being invincible.” The tragic part is though, we’re not God, and as somebody that tried to play God for a while as a teenager, it only causes more trouble.
Obviously, the novel is also important in that like “How to Get Away With Murder” on television, it grants the emotional nuance of a white man to a black female protagonist. Theo’s eating disorder was chillingly relatable because like Marya Hornbacher emphasizes in “Wasted,” anorexics never entirely starve. Instead we pick at our food and develop “quirks” that grow increasingly disturbing, only eating fruit for lunch, scraping the inside out of bagels for breakfast, substituting dinner with an energy bar and coffee because we’re studying since anorexics are often high-achieving and competitive to an unhealthy extreme. By deriding eating disorders as poor little rich (white) girl problems, we refuse to acknowledge the diversity of those who suffer from them, rich white girls yes, but also middle class black girls and upper middle class Indian girls because the trauma is universal especially when the world that inspires it isn’t as exclusive as it would like to think of itself. “Trisha is tall and thin, but not the type of thin that makes people want to send you away” is how Theo describes her classmate because those who face a sense of dysmorphia don’t ever really escape from it without actively trying to, since it squats down and festers in every pore of us and refuses to leave. Everything is about thinness, even when it isn’t, and the most tragic aspect of it is the world almost lauds that behavior as a sign of moral self control impossible for mere mortals.
Most of all, Theo isn’t villainized by the narrative the way a lesser author might have derided her because it’s her story and her story matters. She is a victim but she’s not victimized in a voyeuristic way, and she doesn’t win per se but she’s not punished for her sins the way some of detractors on Goodreads would have liked her to be. She doesn’t get the guy but the guy doesn’t deserve her and he knows it; teenage boys make mistakes and they often don’t suffer the consequences for them the way that teenage girls do because society pinpoints and targets girls for the insecurities and magnifies them solely because it can. The most empowering passage I’ve possibly ever read comes from this novel and despite every miserable, harrowing, cringe-worthy thing that happened in this novel, I had to smile when I read it.
“He cared about me but not enough. Hosea said I was special, but words don’t mean anything without the actions to back them up. And maybe I am special, but it’s not because he said so.”
If I could get every single young woman to read one passage, it would be that one. I’m not going to sit on my soapbox and pretend the opinion of boys doesn’t matter because it often does but more than anything, people have to work to earn respect, they have to work to earn love. In the words of Toni Morrison,
“You do not deserve love regardless of the suffering you have endured. You do not deserve love because somebody did you wrong. You do not deserve love just because you want it. You can only earn – by practice and careful contemplations – the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it.”
In other words, words are wind, they disappear into thin air, but people don’t forget what you do for them and how you treat them so make it count.
These two novels are both relatively short reads, I read them both in one sitting on weekday evenings, and I read fast, but their length and nuance are not related. They both remained with me in ways that thousand page novels did not because their characterization and thematic structure was both impressive and relatable without being pedantic or reproachful. Teenagers drink and fight and do drugs and fall in and out of love and those are facts of life and refusing to acknowledge them in books supposedly targeted to teenagers does nobody any good. I wholeheartedly recommend both and if you read them, please let me know what you think because I’m always interested in talking about books and these were some of my favorites in 2015.