June 21, 2007


Skate. By Michael Harmon. Knopf. $15.95.

Life as It Comes. By Anne-Laure Bondoux. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Cures for Heartbreak. By Margo Rabb. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Grief Girl: My True Story. By Erin Vincent. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

      Readers ages 14 and up who are looking for summertime emotional catharsis will find it in any one of these four books – although reading two or more in quick succession risks drying out the tear ducts. Individually, each book is heartfelt, well written and freighted with meaning and intensity. But despite the fact that the characters and situations are, on the surface, quite different, the books have so many commonalities of theme and approach that they end up seeming like variations on a formula.

      Skate, for example, is Michael Harmon’s gritty story of Ian McDermott, a high-schooler with a drug-addicted mom and absent father. He angers easily, is sure the school administration is out to get him, and eventually slugs a teacher – breaking his jaw. Now Ian has to get away, taking with him his young brother, Sammy, to whom he is as devoted as only a pseudo-parent can be. Their odyssey takes them across the state of Washington, as Ian searches for some sort of help – eventually confronting his father, then his mother, and finally himself. There’s a let’s-unravel-every-strand-of-the-plot mediation scene at the end, in which it turns out that the high school was after Ian after all, and his father may not be so bad after all, and his mother may have a chance at rehabilitation after all, and Ian himself may have the makings of a good person after all. It is, after all, quite uplifting, although the pieces do fit together just a little too neatly.

      The same is true of Life as It Comes, a European-flavored story (Anne-Laure Bondoux is French) in which the troubled young people are female rather than male. Those young people are studious and serious 15-year-old Mado and her flighty party-girl big sister, 21-year-old Patty. This family too is sundered, not by divorce but by death: the girls’ parents die in an accident, Patty becomes Mado’s guardian, and Mado (predictably) soon shows herself to be the adult one in the relationship. Then the slutty Patty reveals that she is pregnant – without all the anguish you would find in a U.S. writer’s book, but with enough of it – and Mado finds herself falling in love with a Dutch boy, and Patty thinks she is falling for another Dutch boy (who isn’t the one responsible for her pregnancy). And then the baby comes early, Mado has to help deliver it, Patty abandons it to Mado’s care, Mado tracks down the father, he turns out to be a very decent guy, and the complications continue through to a rapprochement of sorts at the end.

      There’s death and a sense of new beginnings in Cures for Heartbreak, too. In Margo Rabb’s novel, things proceed at a headlong pace from the start: 15-year-old Mia Pearlman’s mother is diagnosed with cancer and dies 12 days later. Mia still has her father – and an older sister, Alex – and everyone tries to make some sort of life after the family is ripped apart. This time it is the older sister who is the studious one; the father gets on with life by dating and eventually asking someone to marry him; and book sections such as “The Healthy Heart” and “How to Find Love” are introduced with quotations from Toni Morrison and Sex Tips for Girls. No happy ending here, though: Mia is involved with a boy who has cancer, and is well aware of what that can mean; and her father’s remarriage ends quickly and disastrously. There is a feeling of reality to this book – it is based on Rabb’s own experiences – but even if it ends with only a glimmer of hope, it does so with the neatly tied-up flair of a novel.

      Grief Girl, however, is not a novel: it is Erin Vincent’s story of herself. Yet it is so close to these other books for teens that it is hard to separate the fact from the fiction. The book starts with the death of Erin’s parents in a car crash – leaving Erin at loose ends, along with her sister, Tracy, and little brother, Trent. There’s a flashback to what seems to have been a happy family life, after which the rest of the book traces Erin’s attempts to cope with her grief and move forward with life – the chapters have dates instead of numbers or titles. There are real-world complications here, such as a dishonest trustee squandering the kids’ inheritance, Erin’s serious (and unsurprising) problems at school, and more. The book moves along toward “maybe there’s hope for us yet” (Vincent actually writes that), and eventually “the future is here” (she writes that, too). In Vincent’s real life, which she details in an Afterword, the future did indeed arrive, as futures do, and she made what seems to be a good marriage and found what seems to be a good career. Her tale is heartfelt and clearly intended as a tribute to her parents, and it is impossible not to respect Vincent for what she has done and tried to do. But there is little originality in her style or the way she tells her story – as if she has absorbed many books of teenage emotional catharsis, then written her own biography as if it too is one of those novels.

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