Sneering, bilious, though finally endearing first novel pursues a disastrous year in the life of a 16-year-old exchange student in the suburbs of Chicago.
Louise “Lou” Connor, from the dark side of Sydney, Australia, is having a hard time adjusting to her clean, affluent American host family: polished, capable Margaret, a bank manager who has relinquished her sense of identity with marriage and children; weepy, hen-pecked Henry; ungainly, masturbatory 15-year-old James; and long-legged, popular 13-year-old Bridget. Lou is an introspective, nervy, high-IQ teenager who knows too much about life too soon. Brought up in a small flat by working-class parents with low expectations, she was subjected to merciless ridicule by her two dumbbell older sisters and their succession of snaky boyfriends—the only test her sisters ever passed, Lou notes bitterly, is a pregnancy test. Life in great big efficient America is overwhelming for our heroine: everyone possesses perfect teeth and SUVs, no one wants to be friends with her except the fat Mormon girl in history class and the rich, handsome Scottish boy who skipped several grades and lies effortlessly. Lou lands a part in the school musical, and she finds a nip of gin helps to steady her frayed nerves. Soon she’s skipping out of the house to smoke and drink with purloined money, which lands her in the Organization’s detention center for wayward exchange students. There, she meets a kindred spirit, chess-master Russian student Lishny, who is being questioned by police in the drowning death of his four-year-old host sister. Our edgy female Holden Caulfield is trying desperately to rise above her English teacher’s prognosis that despite her intelligence she’s “destined to fly economy class for the rest of [her] life.” Befuddled by the hard-hearted ignorance spawned of American complacency, Lou deserves a chance and blows it every time, but we’re rooting for her all the way.
A story with grit and heart from an intelligent, perspicacious writer to watch.