By Alison Espach
(Scribner, Paperback, 9781439191866, September 2011, 336pp.)
The Short of It:
Sharp. Witty. Acerbic.
The Rest of It:
Fourteen-year-old Emily Vidal and her family host a cocktail party to celebrate her father’s 50th birthday. Everyone in the neighborhood is there despite the oppressive heat and as the guests float in and out of the house, it’s clear to Emily that being an adult is as droll as say… watching paint dry. That is, until she sees her father in a passionate embrace with their next door neighbor, Mrs. Resnick. That night, her parents tell her that they are getting a divorce. It’s said in a very straight-forward manner; a one-two punch to the gut delivered without hesitation. Emily is not surprised after what she’s seen.
Weeks later, Emily invites a group of insipid girls over for a sleepover and in the early morning hours, while getting a glass of water and gazing out her kitchen window, Emily witnesses the suicide of Mr. Resnick as he hangs himself from a tree next door. Her inability to react, to prevent what is about to happen is both alarming and expected. In shock, she drops a glass which shatters across the floor and screams for her father.
The title of this book alone is worthy of discussion. Who are the adults Espach is referring to? Is she talking about Emily’s parents? Her bitter mother, Gloria or her philandering father, Victor? Could she be referring to the Resnicks next door? Another broken family that finds its way into Emily’s immediate circle? Early in the story, I’d say yes. That as we get to know Emily and what makes her tick, we are also given unpleasant glimpses of the adults that form who she is.
With that, let’s talk about Emily. At fourteen, she is wise beyond her years but every now and then her naivety is displayed for all to see. She’s witty, smart and beautiful but at the same time childish and demanding but not in an obnoxious way. Not at all like the friends she hangs out with. They are living caricatures with big heads and a lot of unnecessary banter spewing forth from their mouths. They talk about sex and having sex with various members of the male population, including a teacher by the name of Jonathan.
Emily’s affair with Jonathan is both disturbing and logical. The fact that I just wrote that surprises me, but it’s true. Jonathan’s decision to hook-up with Emily is cringe-worthy but he’s also pretty good to her (if you can forget that he is molesting a child) and although she holds it together fairly well, she is devastated by her parent’s divorce and the distraction of a forbidden romance is what holds her together. But their time together is awkward. There is a lot of fumbling and a lot of sex and although it’s clear that Emily is young and inexperienced, Jonathan doesn’t really pick up on these clues so there are many pages of Emily questioning why he’s so hairy or why he sometimes loses his erection. Her best friend Janice claims to have also slept with Jonathan so it’s not like Emily can just go and ask her about things so she thinks out loud and figures stuff out along the way.
As Emily’s high school years come to a close, I expected the story to end but instead, Espach launches into Emily’s adult life. In college and living in Prague with her father and her half-sister Laura, Emily has once again hooked up with Jonathan and it’s weird. Very weird, because now she is of age, but Jonathan is much older and not nearly as attractive as he used to be. To me, I didn’t need to see Emily as an adult to understand her. Espach’s decision to take us into adulthood was a bold one, but it didn’t work. For one, Emily hasn’t grown all that much. She is essentially the same person and because of this, the relationship between her and Jonathan is even more awkward and forced.
The difference between me loving this one and not loving it, is that jaunt into Emily’s adulthood. I don’t know. I guess I wanted to keep her young in my mind. Isn’t that how it is with high school anyway? You want to hold on to what’s dear and even though her relationship with a teacher was scandalous and perverted, to Emily… it was dear and because of that, I was okay with it. What could have been a great book, was in the end, just good.
Cover note: Don’t let the cover fool you. This paperback cover makes you think it’s for the Young Adult crowd but I’d argue against that. It really does not fall into that category at all.
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