Monday, September 22, 2014

You Go, Roo!: E. Lockhart's THE BOYFRIEND LIST

Just finished the first of E. Lockhart's Ruby Oliver quartet, THE BOYFRIEND LIST, which my friend Jen Mathieu has mentioned more than once as inspirational to her writing of her smashing debut, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE.

Ruby, better known by her nickname Roo, is 15. She is in 10th grade at Tate Prep, a small private school in Seattle, which she has attended on scholarship for most of her schooling, along with the same insular group of (mostly) rich kids. She lives on a houseboat with two rather neurotic parents. And she is having a very bad year.

In the words of the School Library Journal review: "Through a series of social debacles, she loses her best friends, her boyfriend, her dignity, and the respect of her fellow Taters in less than two weeks' time. Following nearly half a dozen panic attacks, Roo starts to spend some quality time on Doctor Z.'s couch, where she makes (at her shrink's urging) a list of boyfriends past and present, official and unofficial, and starts on a journey of self-discovery. Along the way, Ruby begins to think about patterns in her life and ways that she might be more like her mother than she'd care to admit. Fortunately, Ruby survives her traumatic exile and lives to tell the tale."

What I love particularly about this book is that Roo's journey creeps up on you. That she might not be the most reliable of narrators is not immediately evident -- at least it wasn't to me. Roo believes her friends are worth keeping, her boyfriend worth loving, her social status worth keeping. She is totally blindsided by the machinations and betrayals around her and by her own callousness at times. She misjudges people. She misjudges herself. She acts passively when she should express herself. She gets called a slut because she kisses the boyfriend who has broken up with her most likely because he's been cheating on her with her own best friend. In other words - she is a teenager. She is a human. She is a girl finding out who she is and what she wants and who she likes. Why she likes a boy enough to kiss him or why she kisses a boy she doesn't particularly like. Why it feels good to be the girlfriend of a popular boy. And what it feels like to discover that maybe he's not as nice as she thought… and that maybe she still likes him desperately anyway.

(Let me interject here that a boyfriend once broke up with me via a phone call the day AFTER Valentine's Day. Which means that in one 24 hour period, I got a really cute, enormous Valentine's card declaring his affections (we didn't go to the same school, although this was less the problem than that we had zero in common except that he was a good kisser, which I appreciated. But I digress), and the next night he called and said he thought we'd been drifting apart. Yeah. Whatever, dude. I know this wasn't going anywhere, but seriously?)

 Particularly in the microcosm that is high school all that type of thing can be quite cruel to those who don't fit the mold-- even if they fit it the day before. Tough stuff to navigate. And sadly, even in 2014, girls often can't express a healthy sexuality without someone calling them names. (This just makes me crazy, by the way. Absolutely furious. As it should.)

And the whole pecking order craziness is tough stuff as an adult too, isn't it? So often there's still a territorial thing going on. We're just better able to hide our disappointments when don't quite make it to the 'cool kids' table. Or be more generous when we do.

BOYFRIEND LIST is a slow build. Ruby's narrative weaves back and forth in time and there are wonderfully clever and droll footnotes elaborating on various observations. It takes a few chapters to realize that Roo's world is not exactly what she thinks it is. But as she reveals the history of why each of the boys is on her list, (her sudden status as a social 'leper' has induced a series of panic attacks that land her with a therapist, who suggests that she create a list of all the boys who seem significant to what has happened to her), she begins to see the truth and so do we.

If you haven't read BOYFRIEND LIST, you really should. Emily Lockhart's most recent title, WE WERE LIARS, is of course, also brilliant. As are all of her books, including one of my favorites, THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU BANKS. I think you can see elements of both of those here in BOYFRIEND LIST, the germs of ideas she continues to poke and prod at -- about life and love and girls and power.

And thus endeth the Monday morning book talk.

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