Stained is Jennifer Richard Jacobson's first young adult novel.
I have been spoiled in my recent reading: first Mary E. Pearson's A Room On Lorelei Street, and now Stained. I've just added a fourth title to my Best Books of 2005 list.
The Plot: It's 1975 and Joss is 16. She's in love with Benny; but there's another boy who is in her life, her next door neighbor, Gabe. Joss & Gabe have known each other for as long as either can remember; their mothers are best friends. Benny is having doubts about his relationship with Joss: doubts about being so involved with a girl while his mother is dying; doubts about a physical relationship and sex; doubts about Joss, a daughter of divorced parents in a very Catholic town. Doubts that may have been planted by Father Warren. Joss is both angry at Father Warren's intrusion into her private life and jealous of Father Warren's closeness with Benny and Gabe. And now Gabe has disappeared.
As the search for Gabe continues, alternating chapters flashback to different times in Joss's life: a shared childhood with Gabe, Joss's father leaving, Joss's & her divorced mother's estrangement from the Church. As Joss looks at her past and her present, she discovers unsettling truths about herself and Gabe.
The Good: This is an honest and sensitive look at a teenage girl's struggle between passivity and action, between defining herself based on others and defining herself based on self. At times, it is an uncomfortable read because Jacobson is brutally truthful in her depiction of a teenager who is struggling with issues of self, of shame, of faith, of love.
This is not a "problem novel" about Catholic priests and teenage boys; yes, Joss discovers that Gabe and Father Warren were involved in a relationship. But this book is much more than just a book about an in-the-headlines issue. It is a book about being lost and looking for answers in another person; and it is a book about faith, and hope, and love.
While the external search in the book is for the missing Gabe, the true search in the book is Joss searching for herself. What is daring about this book is not that it includes the issue of abuse by a Catholic priest; what is daring is that it shows a girl struggling towards autonomy. Jacobson is willing to have her main character be weak and passive because of fear and shame. What is brilliant is how Joss grows, and how she confronts fear and shame and takes action. I have to share this line: "It's been good to realize that even when I can't see my reflection in Benny's eyes, I still exist."
Other good things: Jacobson vividly depicts the outsider status felt by many children of divorced Catholic parents in the 1970s. Also, despite Father Warren, this is very sensitive about Catholic religion and tradition and faith. And as someone who survived the 1970s, this was full of spot-on 1970s culture. (Am I the only one a little scared by MTV's The 70's House?)