Grant (The Passion of Alice, 1995) uses the political as a counterpoint to the personal in a novel set amidst the tumult of Boston in 1974.
The desegregation of South Boston’s public schools, the rise of Black Power and a young woman’s exploration of her sexual identity are among the weighty themes explored here. A native of Southie, tough-talking teen Ann Ahern, the book’s narrator/protagonist, is schooled in the folkways of her insular Irish-American community. She knows the kids who rioted when black students arrived in Southie’s schools, and her mother has joined other Catholic matriarchs saying rosaries in protest of busing. But ever since she was caught with her tongue in the ear of another girl, Ann has been an outsider as much as an insider. At the start of her junior year, the tensions that define her existence coalesce in a single person: Mademoiselle Eugenie, the new French teacher. A Parisian of Senegalese descent, beautiful, exotic and self-possessed, she is everything Ann is not; the teen is at least as attracted to the possibility of escape that Mademoiselle Eugenie represents as to the woman herself. Ann’s infatuation will lead her out of her claustrophobic community into both love and danger. Ultimately, Eugenie will compel Ann to pick a side, and it’s to the author’s credit that she lets her young heroine make choices that are not especially noble and not necessarily appealing. Ann is both keenly aware of the culture war being waged around her and utterly indifferent to the historical import of the events she’s witnessing—she is, after all, a teenager. Her solipsism may leave readers thinking less of Ann as a person, but it’s an essential element of her engagingly idiosyncratic voice.
A distinctive coming-of-age tale.