Story Of A Girl by Sara Zarr, Reviewed from an ARC, January 2007 publication date
The Plot: Deanna Lambert was thirteen when her father caught her in the back of Tommy Webber's car; Tommy was seventeen and her brother Darren's best friend. Three years later, Deanna is still defined by that moment, in her father's eyes, by the school gossip and in her own eyes. Defined as the psycho/slut who wanted it, who cannot be trusted, who is defined by her sex and by sex.
I honestly believe that the following does not contain any significant plot spoilers; however, I do discuss Deanna's internal, emotional life, and her emotional growth. (So perhaps it's emotional spoilage?)
The Good: This story has layers and layers. It examines how this one moment not only defines who Deanna is, it is also about how, and why, Deanna lets herself by defined by that one moment.
Deanna is in a family that is unable to communicate or express themselves; her father has barely spoken to her since that one awful moment. And, of course, Deanna's relationship with Tommy and her behavour in the years since all have to do with communication; including communicating with oneself. Knowing oneself enough to be able to say "yes" or "no" or "this is what I want" or "this is what I don't want." Knowing oneself to be able to say it even when you do know it. Knowing oneself enough to know why one is saying it.
Three years later, Deanna still cannot talk about Tommy, and has only two friends, Lee (the new girl in town who doesn't care about Deanna's reputation) and Jason (her best friend), and cannot admit or voice her own jealousy and loneliness when Lee and Jason start dating each other. Darren, barely out of high school, is living in the basement with his girlfriend Stacy and their infant daughter, April.
Deanna's struggle is to both acknowledge that yes, she was a victim (in that Tommy was older and took advantage), but also a willing partner and participant (Tommy was only 3 or 4 years older, and how many teenaged boys will say no to someone saying yes?). Part of her struggle is owning her own actions; not being defined as a victim; but also not being defined as a slut. I'm reminded of girls I knew in 7th and 8th grade who dated "up" and were invited to junior and senior proms, and how proud their parents were about their daughter's boyfriend status.
Tommy took advantage of Deanna; but Deanna isn't a passive victim, this wasn't rape, and it's clear that Tommy is immature, unsure, and young, but as the book progresses it's also clear that Tommy isn't a villian. Deanna, alone and lonely, was needy; and Tommy met that emotional need by paying attention to Deanna, being nice to her, talking to her like an adult (or, at least, talking to her as if she were a seventeen year old).
This isn't a problem book, but there is a lesson here: if your child isn't getting what she needs emotionally at home, in terms of love and support, she will look elsewhere, and that elsewhere may include a physical aspect that she's not yet ready for emotionally. I love that Zarr accomplishes this without condemning Deanna. In addition, Deanna's relationship with Tommy takes place when the family is in crisis (the father has been laid off from work, the mother works long hours), but the parents are oblivious about what is happening with their own child. Communication, people!!
I love that both Darren and Deanna are trying to break that cycle of silence and punishment, and that it isn't easy for either of them. This book is also about learning to forgive and to accept forgiveness; to not give in to the temptation of wanting to punish. And that includes punishing others and oneself. To say, mean, and accept "I'm sorry."
As you can see, what impacted me most about this book was the internal. But the book isn't told just by what Deanna is or isn't thinking; I like how Zarr uses actions to show that internal process, whether it's Deanna's new job (where Tommy works), Lee and Jason dating, or Deanna believing that she can start a new life by moving in with Darren, his girlfriend and their daughter.
Note to self: Add this to Best Books Of 2007 once 2007 starts.
Links: The cynsations interview; Child Lit Wiki entry.