March 08, 2006

Ah, the 80's teen: Pregnancy Scares, Prom Dates, and Waterbeds

The Year of Sweet Senior Insanity

Sonia Levitin has written books that have moved on since this one, but I read it because it was one of those in the public library that screamed 'teenager!'

I really don't like the word 'teenager.' It seems to define an eighties sensibility that includes Judy Blume, ABC After School Specials, and the "Just Say No" campaign. Sure enough, on the surface, this novel appeared to have all of those elements. (The sort of hideous cover didn't really help disabuse me of that idea, either, but -- it was published in 1982, so we consider the source and move on.) I read it, though, and was mildly surprised.

Lying on the sand the summer before their senior year, friends Leni, Angie and Rhonda make plans for next June. By then, they'll be done with school, have their lives on a roll, and take a trip to Hawaii, to live it up, and celebrate who they are. It's a tantalizing thing to look forward to, but life... happens. Little do they know that during their Senior year, nothing is going to go as planned.

The novel, in the style of a host of other Blume imitators , is supposed to be about sex, more specifically, losing one's virginity. It's brought up on page 7, and continues to be a thematic element all throughout the book. Growing up, to these teens, is equated with that -- not having a job, not having a home, not making good choices, good grades or emerging unscathed from high school -- just that. Having sex. Leni's afraid she's never going to grow up, while Rhonda's already ...'mature.' Angie doesn't want to do anything risky at all. She plans, instead, to marry right after high school. Leni thinks that's the most awful and boring thing she's ever heard. She's torn between psychoanalyzing Rhonda, envying Angie, and trying to push herself into something she's not really ready for (or is she?) at all. See, she's met this boy... well, really, he's not just a boy, he's a college man. And he's outside of all her experiences. Leni desperately wants him, and her bouts of weeping into her pillow and general 80's era 'teenager' mopiness finally get her what she wants: Blair Justin.

Unfortunately, she really doesn't have time for her own love life. Leni, the 'Kewpie' of her high school (which is a sort of all-in-one head cheerleader, all-team mascot and homecoming queen) is juggling through the maddest scramble of her life -- trying to balance a relationship with her increasingly difficult mother, trying to take care of her grandmother, whose memory and independence is failing, trying to keep up with her grades, her job, and her little brother -- and her boyfriend, a college man who moves from UC Berkeley to UCLA to be close to her, and be independent... and demanding. Leni plans the prom, stars in the prom, attends all the high school games to smile, smile, smile and cheer, cheer, cheer, crams for tests, reads every novel for English in CliffNotes, stands on her head to elevate her grades, and finds out that having a sexy, hunky, manly boyfriend... isn't all that.

The end of the novel is surprising, considering the beginning premise, and is almost unbelievably mature. Levitin was an early pioneer of novels that were about personal freedom and exploration, and teenagers making choices - even responsible ones.

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