With sensitivity and quiet wit, O. Henry Award–winner Swann delineates the turmoil of adolescence.
Maya and Roe are both misfits at their posh boarding school in the suburbs of New York City. Roe is a scholarship student from the South, raised by her strict military father after a car hit and killed her mother. Maya, whose tuition is being paid by her wealthy, dissolute grandmother, grew up in rural isolation with an unmarried mother who rejected her privileged background. The 16-year-olds bond over their passion for books—Roe loves Russian novels; Maya’s favorite is Jane Eyre—and their alienation from the other girls: “They’re like a spectacle we’re watching. We only want to spend time among ourselves.” First-novelist Swann captures with marvelous clarity the sense young adults have of waiting for “life” to begin, of searching for clues as to who they might be. Roe and Maya buy clothes in thrift shops, trying on outfits the way they try on identities. They spend Saturdays in Manhattan, intoxicated by a city in which “the gap between desire and action narrows and, at certain moments, simply falls away.” A highly alcoholic Christmas with Maya’s grandmother, the book’s funniest, scariest section, suggests that living wholly by desire’s imperatives may not be such a good idea. But both girls rush toward experience anyway, seeking to overcome their anxieties. Narrator Maya, who confesses to being scared of people, embarks on a love affair with Arthur, a 32-year-old art writer. Roe, whose deepest fear is “that something will happen . . . an accident or tragedy of some kind,” gets involved with Jesse, a troubled local boy who beats her up. Summer vacations with their respective men are equal though different disasters (not quite as sharply conceived as the scenes that precede them) from which the girls emerge slightly battered but stronger. “Life, we’ve agreed, has definitely started.”
Wonderfully perceptive and precise about an age that’s too often portrayed in vague generalities.