July 31, 2009

Retro Friday Review: Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

When I started Retro Fridays, I knew at one point I would have to do an Ellen Emerson White book. I realize I've gone on about my love for her novels at length on the blog. This is not breaking news. But that's sort of the point. I also realized I've only actually reviewed her most recent book--Long May She Reign--the fourth in her President's Daughter series. And that's a wonderful book, and it is an excellent series, but to really get to the root of my EEW love we're gonna need to go back to the beginning. I must have been fourteen. I saw Life Without Friends sitting faced out on the bookstore shelf and thank goodness for whichever prescient bookseller it was that faced it out because it was the cover that sold me. I would never have picked it up if all I'd seen was the spine. The title is, as my husband would (and has!) said, possibly the most depressing book title of all time. But the cover. I love it. Because the girl doesn't look depressed. Thoughtful? Yes. Lonely? Most definitely. But something in her face told me she was tough. Then there's the park bench, the leaf in her hand, the ivy-covered tree, the Boston Red Sox cap awkwardly perched on her head, and the city skyline in the distance. SOLD.

Beverly has had a bad year. She was involved in a series of murders that took place at her high school during junior year. Involved in a The Murderer Was Her Boyfriend kind of way. The story opens as she is returning home from the trial with her father and stepmother. Things are understandably tense in the Johnson household these days. But it's been that way for years now. When her mother died, Beverly came to live with her father the stodgy Harvard professor, his young and quirky wife Maryanne, and their happy-go-lucky five-year-old Oliver. Shortly after she got involved with what could delicately be termed "the wrong crowd" and things spiralled downward from there. Now she spends her days trying to ghost through the rest of her senior year, avoid contact with anyone including the psychiatrist her father makes her see, and not wake up screaming from her increasingly disturbing nightmares. One day on a walk through the Public Gardens, Beverly meets Derek--a boy who works landscaping for the city--and an uneasy friendship is born.

This book kind of ate me alive at fourteen and I have re-read it pretty much every year since. It's become what you might call a Monster Comfort Read. The ones you practically have memorized, yet you still get that tingle down your spine as you turn the page, just knowing what delights are on the other side. Much of the storyline revolves around Beverly trying to come to grips with her role in the crimes and whether or not she could have stopped things before they really got out of control. This lion's share of guilt is compounded when she dares to make a friend who doesn't know who she is or what happened last year. Beverly is caught in an agony of uncertainty over whether or not to tell him and lose someone who has somehow become important or hide her past and retain a friendship based on lies. This book is a companion novel to White's first book, Friends for Life, which focuses on the actual murder story itself. Beverly is a minor character in that book and I have to give it up for White's audacity at making the character you previously despised the protagonist in a follow-up book. But she pulls it off flawlessly. The entire cast of characters gets under your skin and you realize, just as Beverly is not the bad girl you first took her to be, none of the other characters are any kind, shape, or form of black or white. While the wonderfully stilted and layered interactions between Beverly and Derek steal the show, all of the characters sparkle and resonate with me. I am particularly fond of the weekly psychiatric sessions, which are like a minefield for Beverly, as well as pretty much any conversation between Beverly and Maryanne.

As an example of the dialogue I love and just the general feel of a White book, I'm including an excerpt from a very early scene between Beverly and Derek:
He walked over to the cast-iron fence, leaning against it, staring out at the street. "Can't figure what you want me to do."
"Who says I want you to do anything?"
"Well, I dunno," he said, turning around. "Seems like you keep getting mad."
"I'm not mad."
"Still can't figure what you want." He put his hands in his pockets, the cigarette hanging out of his mouth. "Like, if you weren't so totally weird, I'd ask you out." He frowned. "You'd prob'ly call the cops 'r something."
Beverly looked at him slouching against the fence, hair tousled, cigarette hanging. "Is this your James Dean imitation?"
"Give it more pain," he said, and slouched lower, demonstrating. He straightened. "So, do I ask you out, or what?"
"Couldn't we just be--friends or something?"
"Friends," he said.
"Well, yeah. I, uh," she coughed, "don't have so many right now."
"There something wrong with you?"
She tightened her arms, hunching over them.
"Sorry," he said. "That was mean." He took the cigarette out, studied it, then put it back in. "Actually," he exhaled, "I don't have so many myself."
"What's wrong with you?"
He shrugged. "Lots prob'ly. Anyway," he shifted his weight, "you don't seem like you'd be too bad of a friend."
Beverly also shrugged, her fists nervously tight. "Might not be that great."
Neither of them said anything.
"So, uh," he spoke first, "you doing anything tomorrow afternoon?"
"No, I--" Dr. Samuels. She sighed. "Yeah. I have a doctor's appointment."
He looked suspicious. "For real?"
"Oh, yeah," she said. "This is starting off great."
"Guess you really have a doctor's appointment."
She nodded.
"Well. You busy this weekend?"
"I don't think I can go out at night," she said uneasily.
"You turn into a werewolf?"
She shook her head.
"We could do something during the day." The part of his mouth without a cigarette grinned. "Hear friends do that sometimes."
She nodded.
"Can I call you? Like to--"
"No," she said quickly. "I mean--my father's strict."
"How strict?"
"Look, you want to meet here at one? On Saturday?"
He looked around the graveyard. "Here?"
"Why not?"
"Why not," he said.
"Okay." She took a first nervous puff of her cigarette. "Then, I'll--I'll see you then."
"Okay," he said, giving her a James Dean grin. "See ya."
She nodded, turning to leave.
"Hey, yo."
She paused.
"What's your name?" he asked.
So, yeah. There you have it. While I sit here with a big, dumb grin on my face, you go see if you can rustle up a copy at your local library. Used copies are also available pretty cheap right now. I'm just sayin'...

Linkage
Retro Friday Roundup

15 comments:

  1. Angie - I keep thinking I'm making a dent in my reading list and then you turn around and throw something like this at me! I have so many series that I have my fingers in...gah. Also, I need to stop by and borrow the rest of the mercedes thompson series. I'm in the mood for some more vampire-werewolfness. :o)

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  2. I love, love, love Derek.

    Sigh.

    Love him.

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  3. I'm going to remember this author's name now.

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  4. Alicia, LOL. I think I can safely say you would really like this book. The trick is you get into enough series that there's something new coming out each month to keep you going. And Mercy (and Adam) is here waiting for you. :)

    Liz, yes, Yes, YES. My mind basically exploded with joy at that one particular reference in LONG MAY SHE REIGN. You know the one. *sigh*

    Janice, I haven't really given you a choice, have I? :) I think you would like this one a lot. Also, THE ROAD HOME I think might be right up your alley.

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  5. Anonymous2:12 PM

    I clearly remember the day that I, a lonely teenager, bought "Life Without Friends" at the mall. My mother was shocked by the title. I have read this book many, many times, and fall for Derek over and over. Interestingly, I've never read the first book...

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  6. I love that excerpt! It's now reminding me of this book I read to pieces during my teenage years. But can I remember the title, author, or even the plot? No... it's driving me mad now.

    I've officially added EEW to my list of authors to try.

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  7. Anon, comrade! I had to laugh at your mom's reaction. And I think I will be falling in love with Derek for the rest of my life. "Just that kind of guy."

    Li, these two characters are great stuff. That is all. And now you've got me wondering which book it was you read! When you do get around to EEW, do let me know what you think. :)

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  8. I *love* EEW. The President's Daughter was one book I read over and over as a teen, but I've never seent his one.

    Did any of you read Caroline B Cooney? She was a writer I adored as a teen who reminds me a lot of EEW in terms of writing style. She's probably most famous for THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON but my fave by her was always 20 Pageants After, which is about the younger sister of a beauty queen.

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  9. this sounds like a book I would enjoy! I love the tension and humor in that excerpt!

    --Sharry

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  10. I'm sold. I really need to read all of EEW's backlist one of these days - she writes such intelligent, honest characters that I can't help but love. I actually just finished the Echo Company series and I am still a little speechless. It was too amazing. I think I love Michael even more now.

    Thanks for the great review!

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  11. Diana, grin. You, my dear, simply must read this one. You know, in all that available time you're going to have once you whip KU2 into shape. ;) I did read Caroline B. Cooney as a teen but I've never heard of Twenty Pageants After. Thanks for the rec!

    Sharry, you hit on exactly what I love about EEW's writing. The mingled tension and humor. They're always there in spades. She's the master. I think you'd really like this one!

    Michelle, you're welcome. And you're right. Her characters get me every time. So smart, so honest. So much it hurts. In the best way. I am absolutely tickled you read the Echo Company books! Could you believe those last 2? I was in absolute heaven reading them. My love for Michael is a large, large love.

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  12. Anonymous8:18 AM

    I never read this one. I hope I can find it because I loved that excerpt.

    Have you ever read Julian F. Thompson? I was such a huge Grounding of Group 6 fan. I managed to keep my copy over the years.

    Karen S

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  13. Karen, I hope you can find it, too! If not, let me know. I have been known to mail out copies of EEW books to get people to read them...
    I haven't ever read any Thompson, though I totally remember running across The Grounding of Group 6. I'm thinking I need to read it. I love all these good, old recs I'm getting from the Retro Friday posts!

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  14. I loved this book when I read it--once upon a time, of course. I think it was the first book I read that used "the F word." I'd forgotten most of the plot though--and I had no idea it was a sequel! Feeling a little obligated to go find both books and read them now.

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  15. Jena, lol. I think it was the first one I read with the F word as well. Funny, that. If you do get around to re-reading it, let me know!

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