March 20, 2008


How They Met and Other Stories. By David Levithan. Knopf. $16.99.

Prey. By Lurlene McDaniel. Delacorte Press. $10.99.

      There is in almost all Hollywood romantic comedies a moment called the “meet cute.” It is the scene in which two soon-to-be-lovers adorably fall in love on first seeing each other – or instantly decide they will hate each other forever, which turns out (on screen) to be much the same thing. But if the “meet cute” is common in films, it is rare in real life. David Levithan’s How They Met tries to strike a balance between the “meet cute” and the “meet in reality.” It also tries to show that homosexual lovers, male and female, meet and are attracted in much the same way as heterosexuals. It’s a little difficult to figure out what audience Levithan is going after – his earlier books about homosexual relationships clearly gave young gay people a chance to read about people with whom they could identify, but in these stories there is more variety in people’s sexuality and forms of attraction. Perhaps that is Levithan’s point: stories about love (these are not really “love stories”) cross all boundaries. Levithan, who turns 36 this year, includes one story he wrote when he was 17 as well as other fairly early ones, plus a number written more recently. There has been little significant development in Levithan’s writing style, but his ability to encapsulate a person in a few words has improved. Different readers will find different highlights here: perhaps the guy-meets-guy “Starbucks Boy,” with its line, “Only in New York (and maybe San Francisco) could a six-year-old have gaydar”; possibly the girl-meets-girl “Miss Lucy Had a Steamboat,” in which Lucy the narrator says about the I Love Lucy TV series, “I kept waiting for the episode where Lucy and Ethel finally ran off together and made out”; maybe the very clever boy-meets-girl “The Number of People Who Meet on Airplanes,” which includes a Cupid for the jet age; or another of these 18 tales. There is a line from one story here that, for better or worse, can stand as a motto for them all: “As it is with accidents, so it is with love.”

      So how is it with lust? And how are love and lust related? On the basis of Prey, Lurlene McDaniel appears to have no idea. The book is something of a departure for McDaniel, who in most of her frequently death-focused books has never met a problem that religious belief couldn’t solve, or at least mitigate. Prey is nothing like “pray,” though. Here, McDaniel turns her attention to what she seems to consider a huge societal problem: teachers sleeping with their teenage students. Certainly this is partly McDaniel’s attempt to cash in on some highly sensational teacher-seduction news stories; but readers hoping for any insight into what these real-world occurrences might mean about society (or even about the individuals involved) will find little of value in McDaniel’s fictional account. Prey features a young, attractive history teacher who wears clingy clothes and high stiletto heels – a costume apparently approved by the school officials who hired her (this is one of a number of unrealistic plot points). This teacher, Lori Settles, settles in just fine at a high school where she sets her sights on Ryan Piccoli, who is almost 16 (one plot point that turns out to matter). Ryan is as stereotypical as Lori: his mother is dead, his father travels constantly for work, and so he has lots of time (including nights) completely alone and unsupervised. Lori seduces Ryan (who tells her he is a virgin, which we later find out is untrue); the physical relationship gets emotional on both sides; Ryan’s friends notice he has changed; and the “good” person who blows the whistle and calls in the cops is a clingy, unattractive girl who wishes Ryan would do with her what he is doing with Lori. McDaniel does all she can to paint Lori as evil and depraved, but it never quite works, probably because McDaniel appears to have no understanding of the remote possibility that some 16-year-olds may show some evidence of emotional maturity – enough to make them attractive even to a 30-year-old. McDaniel will have none of this: Lori is depraved, severely emotionally damaged, has done this sort of thing before, and is so unstable that she apparently tries to commit suicide at the drop of a hat. If this caricature represented the actual teachers who have had affairs with their students, it would have been remarkably easy for parents and police to stop everything in its tracks. But real people are a lot more complicated, emotionally and sexually, than McDaniel seems to realize (although there is a very slight hint of possible understanding at the end of the book, when the question is raised as to whether Lori or Ryan is the “prey” of the title). Give Prey (++) for McDaniel’s willingness to try handling a subject outside her usual comfort zone. But don’t expect more reality from the book than from, say, a non-comedic Hollywood version of a teacher-seduces-student story.

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