Sunday, September 16, 2007
Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly. Library copy.
Angie, a recent graduate of a small, all girls school, meets Jack, a popular kid who just graduated from the local public school. They start to date and she gets pulled into the popular crowd; she'll be leaving for college in the fall. Jack won't. Angie has no idea what to do with all her feelings and emotions, as she moves past childhood.
A haunting, lyrical book, where, quite frankly, nothing much happens. This is about the journey, not the trip.
It's a quiet book, much like Criss Cross. It was published in 1942; Daly wrote it in college; so despite the date, this is really a book at small town America between the wars, in those last golden years before WWII. Angie leaves childhood behind after that summer; the reader knows that all those golden boys, Jack, Fritz, and Swede, will no doubt be seeing battle soon. (Martin, I'm sure, will come up with a bogus deferment. More on him below.)
Angie is quiet and an observer, almost passive. Much is made of her not being part of the crowd before meeting Jack; she mentions girls she went to school with, but no friends. It's as if she didn't start to live until she met Jack. And, in many ways, in this place and time, it's true. Without a boy, a girl who walks alone to town to get a Coke will be talked about. The rules are complex to the point of being an alternate world, about when it's OK to call a boy (apparently, never); when it's OK to go steady with a boy (apparently, rarely.)
I'm sure this can be viewed as "clean" romance; Angie questions whether it's OK to kiss Jack on a third date, even though she likes him; a declaration of love stops the world; she doesn't understand what "necking" is, or the "fast" reputation of certain girls.
But. But. There is so much more here, obvious to the reader who is, well, a little big older. And wiser. The couple who are in the back seat of the car and so quiet. We know, or suspect, what they are doing, even tho Angie does not. Just as we wonder at the inclusion of the young Dolly, from the poor family, going out with "the crowd" and drinking beer.
There are the couples who disappear, the places people park. But, most tragically, Angie's older sister, Lorraine, home from college, who wants, yearns, for something more out of life and is also lonely. Lorraine's sad story is the dark side of the AndyHardy movie like romance of Angie and Jack, with its chaste kisses and whirlwind of unknown (so unacted upon) feelings and emotions, where holding hands is overpowering. Lorraine meets Martin, in his mid to late 20s. From the text, it's clear that Lorraine wants and needs a boyfriend; and that she has broken "the rules" by accepting dates within too short a time period and calling a boy. From the comments she makes to her younger sister, I wonder. While a strict reading of the text makes it seem that the only lesson is, "don't accept a date too quickly or the boy will not really care for you," just how far did Lorraine go, in trying to keep and capture Martin?
Happily, the only "punishment" Lorraine suffers is the gaining of knowledge. Oh, and Martin drops her, coldly, cruelly. Lorraine returns to college, having lost her innocence; even if she didn't sleep with Martin, she is a bit colder in her heart. But in looking up more information about the author, I discovered that Maureen based the sisters in her book on her real life sisters. In real life, Lorraine was Kay Daly Leslie, who became a vice president of Revlon important enough to warrant an obituary in Time Magazine. Yes, I thought, she made it out of the small town and did indeed find what she was looking for.
The writing beautifully captures a summer and a summer romance; of wanting and yearning and searching and thinking. And I do wonder; how much did Daly herself know? A few times, the other characters comment on or react to Angie's being, well, "a good girl" who is unaware of certain things. Was Daly similarly ignorant about what the others were hinting at? Or was Daly well aware, and crafted the book knowing well what was OK and not OK for a teenage girl to write (and read) in the early 1940s? Because often, the writing is full of want and desire.
Speaking of the 40s, one of the things I love about books like this is the look into the past. This provides a feel of the early 1940s that no "historical fiction" book could deliver; from the class issues between Jack and Angie (she has a near breakdown from Jack clicking his teeth with a spoon as he eats ice cream and strongly suspects that his father eats dinner in his shirtsleeves, and believes the reader will be equally appalled), to the mother's odd illnesses, to the local hangouts where teens drink beer and smoke (and no one, NO ONE, minds about ashes or smoke, let alone drunk driving.)
Would teens today be interested in this book? I think those who liked Criss Cross. I think younger teens. And I think those teens who are, like Angie, more sheltered. Some communities have Nick and Norahs; others have Angies.
The Semicentennial of Seventeenth Summer: Some Questions and Answers from The ALAN Review
In Memoriam notice for Maureen Daly
The Longstockings review