March 02, 2006

Multiple Developments - Far Too Many. (Warning: Spoilers.)

Now, I know that I tend to be hard on books that are 'issue' books, because it's so very difficult to write a non-character driven book and make it interesting. Marlene Perez has given it a shot in her 2004 novel, Unexpected Development. This premise of the novel is clearly illustrated on the cover - it's meant to be a book about a girl with a larger chest.

This novel works on a number of levels. The protagonist, Megan, has a pretty horrible summer job with a lecherous boss and mindless tourists wanting pancakes and leaving bad tips. The character has some very realistic moments as a teen, including some horribly real interactions with her mother, who is juggling her second set of twins and is straddling being both the mother of teens and the mother of toddlers. Love interest Jake Darrow is drawn convincingly, and Megan's since-grade-school crush on him comes across very clearly. However, I believe this book attempts to be about too many issues, thus doing justice to none; many of the subjects broached are left dangling awkwardly, are shallowly explored, and incomplete.

My first difficulty with the story comes from the structure. It is told in a sort of recent past tense, where the main character is required to write a "What I Did Last Summer" type of essay to her teacher. To begin with, I find it difficult to believe that a student essay would include details of a first sexual encounter, even if, as the ubiquitous Mrs. Westland promises, no one is going to read it but her. The details that follow in the novel encourage the reader to suspend disbelief that any seventeen year old would be willing to divulge that much, especially to a teacher.

My next issue comes when Megan first encounters Peter Fenton, the one-dimensional older "paper villain" whose pawing of then freshman Megan earned him two weeks detention. I was more than surprised by this; in a public school, being caught by a teacher pinning a young girl's arms above her head and opening her blouse while she weeps and struggles would mean time in Juvenile Hall; that's assault. In a private school, or a religious school where teachers and faculty often try to downplay outside interference, I could see a teacher handing out detention. But in public school? Yet the character extols the trustworthiness of the wonderful Mrs. Westland, who saved her so long ago from this heavy-handed troll's advances. I doubt Mrs. Westland did him a favor, as later in the novel, he predictably attempts to rape Megan. His Villainous Guy status almost takes on comical proportions, and you expect him to have twirly moustaches, speak with a thick accent, and tie her to a railroad track. "I always get what I want," he grunts, like a teen aged Neanderthal. Unbelievably, no one seems to notice his knuckles trailing to the floor. Yes, he gets away with it again. I realize that happens in real life, but it seems to beg the question of whether or not the novel is encouraging readers to report things anyway, or...what?

The male characters in Unexpected Development are plentiful, yet faceless. Megan's father is bland and shadowy, her brothers are nearly indistinguishable, yet they are the same age as her boyfriend, and friends of his. The spotlighted characters in the story are oddly lit; best friend Jilly comes across as strangely detached from boys her age because of her steady, Lyle, with whom she is already, at seventeen, ready to settle down into contented couplehood. The pair are already engaged. Jilly is unbelievably convenient as a writer's foil - the reader doesn't have her issues or sexuality to deal with, and she also has a conveniently empty house and plenty of extra bedrooms for best friends and their boyfriends. Her absentee parents, her heartache from a bitter and alcoholic stepmother are only briefly skimmed over. She is never unhappy, and always fulfilled. The entire novel is a stage set for Megan's life.

Another secondary issue the novel deals with is Megan's boss, Mr. Cooper, and his affair with the under-aged Susi. Mr. Cooper touches Megan's bra straps, watches her work, and blocks her entry and exits from buildings. He brushes past her, and is generally a lecherous yuckfest. Megan gives him no encouragement, but no one else (including the INCREDIBLY DENSE Susi - apparently dressing like a hoochie means you're also quite stupid) seems to notice what he does, and that he does it to everyone. Jilly's father owns the restaurant, but Jilly believes that no one would believe her word over Mr. Cooper's - so no one even tries to talk to qualified and attentive adults about what's going on at the pancake house. Later, in what is meant to be a caring and courageous move, Megan tells Susi's mother what's going on with Susi, and Mr. Cooper is arrested. Telling something to save someone else, then, is clearly more important than saving yourself. "You never know who people will love," Jake says of Mr. Cooper, bafflingly. Indeed.

Finally, there are the issues that bookends the novel - Megan's bosoms. Only, it's less about the breasts, and more about the girls who has them. Jilly, Megan's best friend expects that she and Jake are into it hot and heavy the very first time they're alone together for more than five minutes, despite the fact that Megan believes that he is still with his steady girlfriend. Megan's mother constantly warns her about "girls like you," yet never explains what that damning statement is supposed to mean -- nor does Megan ask. Girls like you? What about them??? Further, Megan spends the night with this boy and I suppose because she is telling the story to her Mrs. Westland, the character glosses over what it means for someone who is so uneasy about her physical attributes to allow herself to be undressed and touched and seen.

There was so much material on Megan's experiences, personal history, family history, and her reaction to negative attention to her body to be delved into that was left undiscovered. This was disappointing, especially since the character claimed that she had 'blossomed' in the fifth grade. That richness of emotional exploration was ignored in favor of focusing on externals and surfaces -- Megan's first sexual experience, her bosoms being a sexual thing, and the sexual complications she observes and encounters one summer. That was unfortunate, shallow and passive; just a little more work could have really strengthened the story arc and cleared out much of its conflicting and unnecessary storylines, delivering a clear and precise emotional pay off as Megan finally meets a boy who likes her for her, not her breasts. Unfortunately, without more backstory, we don't know the 'her' that Jake is supposed to like. Their solely sexualized encounters, in which he hardly speaks to her, but insists that he's been 'thinking about her for a long time;' his very recent break-up with a long-term girlfriend, and their squabbling just confused issues. The novel limps to an ambivalent end.

(And can I just snipe a little about that bra on the cover? No one, and I mean no one who has as large a chest as we are led to believe the character has (although she has actually exaggerated it -- and its importance -- to herself) can wear a bra with such a plunging décolletage and such microthin straps, okay? It's a very clever cover and all, but it's definitely was just meant to get books off the shelves.)

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1 comment:

a. fortis said...

Well, good to know...I remember hearing about this book at conference, I think, but I'm less intrigued after reading your review.