Thursday, August 30, 2007

Ellen Emerson White: The Friends Books

Ellen Emerson White: The Friends Books

Friends for Life (1983)
Life Without Friends (1987)

As I mentioned in my intro for the week, EEW's first book, and the first book of hers I read, was Friends for Life. (And, at press time, not only could I not find an image online, but I could not find my digital camera to take my own photo.)

Friends For Life

The Plot:

Susan, a senior in high school, has just returned to Boston after living in NYC for several years. She thinks this is made of awesome, because finally she'll be back together with her two best friends, Colleen and Patrick. But then Colleen turns up dead of an overdose. And everyone believes it to be true, saying Colleen had changed, you've been in NYC, you don't know.

Susan knows her best friend. She knows it wasn't an overdose. So what's a girl to do? Years before Veronica Mars avenged Lily Kane, Susan went undercover to prove not only that Colleen was murdered -- but also who did it.

The Good:

I had forgotten that EEW's first book was a mystery; so that her later All Emergencies, Ring Super (an adult mystery) wasn't a new genre. (Yes, it's a good book, set in Manhattan, and per the author's website, a sequel is being written.)

Even if mystery isn't your cup of tea, you'll enjoy the pop culture references, one liners, the humor. The real characters. Plus, a good plot as Susan risks everything for her best friend. As you can see from what I'm focusing on here, what I like about EEW is what I like about Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen.

So, Susan goes about trying to solve the murder of her best friend. And, since no one believes her, it means she goes "undercover," acting as if she got in with the drug crowd in NYC so is looking for that at her new school (which was Colleen's school.) Susan discovers who the local drug dealer is, gets in with that crowd (bad & wild on the inside, preppy looking on the out), and almost gets murdered. Beverly is one of the bad crowd; and the one who tells the teenage drug dealer psycho murderer that Susan isn't the new girl in town, but Colleen's old BFF (because, surprise, Beverly went to the same middle school as Susan & Colleen.)

So it was with great surprise that I picked up Life Without Friends and discovered Beverly's story. Yeah, the girl you hated in the first book!

Life Without Friends

The Plot:

It's still high school, and it's set following the events in Friends for Life. Beverly ended up doing the right thing in the previous book (see, she was actually trying to stop psycho boyfriend, but didn't know how) but that doesn't excuse or erase her dating psycho boy, being involved with the drugs and the wildness. Psycho boy killed people... and Beverly did nothing. When Beverly acted, the result was Susan almost getting killed. The reader is primed to hate Beverly.

Yet.... you don't. Told from Beverly's point of view, Beverly is regretful, sympathetic, and lonely. She is at the same school, and everyone thinks that she's no better than her murdering ex boyfriend, so needless to say she has no friends.

LWF is about Beverly trying to figure out how it all went wrong; why she was seduced by psycho boy and his lifestyle, why she is so alienated from her family, why she made the choices she did. She is "without friends" not just because the entire school hates her, but also because she feels she cannot trust herself to make friends.

It turns out that Beverly is a nice kid. Acts a bit tough, but really isn't. With the same sense of humor as Susan and Colleen; these three should have been friends. But they're not. What with Colleen being dead and Susan almost being killed, and if Beverly had just spoken up about her psycho boyfriend hitting her before any of that, Colleen would be alive.

Beverly figures she doesn't deserve friends. Doesn't deserve happiness.

Her father, realizing that "hey, maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, what with my new wife and new kid and all" is trying hard to fix things. So, he's become very strict (tho, as Beverly notes, it's easy for her to live with his strictness what with the "no friends.") And, she's going to a shrink.

And then, one boring afternoon as she sits reading in Boston Commons, she meets Derek. He's working there, taking care of the grounds; he is not part of Beverly's world of rich kids, private education, Ivy League colleges. Very blue collar. Not her type at all; since her type is psychos who beat her up and the kill people, while Derek is, well, nice. (Derek is, btw, an awesome book boyfriend.)

The Good:

You do not have to read one book to read the other. They are companion books, not a series. Why is this important? Because, technically, EEW's latest book (Long May She Reign) is the 4th in a series. But, as is proven here, EEW writes companion books, meaning, no, you don't have to read the other books to read the new one. And this, her first time doing so, works brilliantly.

I like EEW's nuanced families; again, in books it is almost easy to have the eevill parent (who is evil because they are poor parents, have remarried, have jobs, like make up, etc.) (I originally wrote "YA books" and then realized I've read plenty of adult fiction that has one-note evil parents, with the eevillness based on some pretty shallow foundations.)

What I like here is that Beverly's father is both to blame for things and yet, it is also clear that Beverly is responsible for her own actions. Yes, her father is emotionally distant; he is more invested emotionally in his "new" family. (As an aside, don't you just love people who, rather than working to make things right with their first set of children, instead have a second set and view that as a second chance? Yeah, me neither.) Beverly's mother died (in what may have been a suicide), and her father didn't handle that well, either.

It is stellar of EEW's writing that the distant dad, the pretty young second wife, and the beloved new "I'm doing it right this time" baby brother are all, well, nice. And multi dimensional. In other words, EEW creates flawed characters. Who try. Who fail. Who succeed.

LWF is one of my three favorite EEW books because of Beverly. She has been wounded; she has a lot she has to change about herself and how she interacts with the world; and it would be so very easy for her not to change. Not to keep on going. But she does; and not in some Pollyanna way. Rather, in a smoking her cigarettes, sharing a beer with her stepmom, and saying the F word way. (I have to say, in rereading this book, I was surprised at how frequently Beverly used the F world. And EEW is less squeamish than I in print; yes, Beverly says it. But, frankly, if my exboyfriend beat the crap out of me and then murdered my classmates, I'd be saying f*ck, also. Plus, the hows and whens of Beverly's language changes during the book; she's careful what she says in front of her brother. It's like she's trying to be tough but secretly? She's as nice as the rest of the family. You so want to be her friend. )

One last point: You know how one of the great things about Sarah Dessen is sometimes she refers to characters from one book in another? EEW does it, and just as well. I'm not saying it because of these two books being related... but because some of the characters in these two books get mentioned in other books she wrote. I'm afraid to say more here, because I loved discovering it on my own. But if you twist my arm, I'll reveal all in the comments.

Edited to add: All books are my copies; except, the last three books of the Echo Company series are library copies, and Long May She Reign is an ARC from BEA.

Other Under the Radar Recommendations will be posted this evening.

Shaken & Stirred: The Changeover and Catalogue of the Universe, both by Margaret Mahy

Big A, little a: A interview with Helen Dunmore

Jen Robinson's Book Page: The Treasures of Weatherby by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Bildungsroman: Swollen by Melissa Lion

Finding Wonderland: Lucy the Giant by Sherry L. Smith

Miss Erin: A discussion of Erec Rex: The Dragon's Eye and an interview with author Kaza Kingsley

7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast: Billie Standish Was Here by Nancy Crocker

Fuse Number 8: The Noisy Counting Book by Susan Schade

Chasing Ray: Juniper, Genetian and Rosemary by Pamela Dean

lectitans: Who Pppplugged Roger Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf

Writing and Ruminating: Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown

Semicolon: Christian Fiction

MotherReader: It's Kind of a Funny Story


Anonymous said...

Beverly is one of my all time favorite YA characters--I go back to the book again and again just to hang out with her.

Angiegirl said...

So do I. I don't know how many times I've read Life Without Friends. It and The Road Home are my favorite EEW books. I was always lending my copies out to people I convinced to read them. I started getting nervous I wouldn't get them back intact, so I finally bought a second copy of both be my lender copies.

I'm thrilled that you're reviewing these books and I will go ahead and twist your arm! I've read all EEW's books except Long May She Reign. Where did you find the crossover character mentions?

Anonymous said...

I don't consider it a spoiler--but some people do. So, I'll skip a few lines, if you want to avoid the small spoiler below.
Let's just say that a character from one of my other books is a major character in Long May She Reign.

Thanks for your hard work on these reviews, Liz!


Kelly said...

Oh, I missed these too. I wish I could trip down memory lane with y'all. I guess I just need to read them for next time :)

Erin said...

Bummer, my library has "Life Without Friends" but not "Friends for Life". Ah well...Christmas is coming. ;)

Anonymous said...

Friends for Life is a pretty weak book, actually. Heartfelt--but poorly written.

Susan is, in retrospect, an odd character, because she's almost entirely humorless.

Many of the people I know life Life Without Friends more than any of my other books, but I do not share this opinion. I liked Maryanne, and I felt sorry for Beverly, but I could never quite get past her silence when lives were at stake.


Liz B said...

Apparently, my blog eats my own comments. So I have to post wednesday's response to you all again.

Ellen, see, that's why I think Life Without Friends is so great. Because Beverly could have and should have spoken up. While most of our wrong choices don't get someone (or multiple someones) killed, LWF is great because of the issue of forgiveness (both Beverly & herself & the reader & Beverly). Well, even aside from forgiveness, getting on with life when you've done something terrible and actually changing yourself. I don't think the Beverly at the end of the book would have been silent; not just because of hindsight, but also because she had changed. As a reader, I begin by feeling sorry for Beverly (and feeling sorry for someone is NOT the same as liking someone.) (I used capitals because I've read way too many fanfic & published stories that don't get that.) As the book goes on, and she changes - that's when the like starts.

Arg. work. more later.