"Girls in Trouble"
(Reviewed by Nandini Pandya APR 4, 2004)
Writing a book review is easy when the book is written well and its story agrees with your own world view or, the book is badly written. Writing a review of this book is hard because the book is beautifully written, but I find myself unable to be fully sympathetic to some of the characters and the choices that they make. But, if a book is to be judged by whether it makes the reader think and by whether it expands the reader's understanding of people and society, then this book is certainly a winner.
By the time 16-year-old Sara acknowledges her pregnancy, she is well into her second trimester. When her boyfriend disappears and her parents push her toward adoption, she chooses an open, loving couple, Eva and George, who make Sara feel like part of the family. After her baby's birth, though, Sara becomes increasingly unstable and attached to her child, and her visits to Eva and George's home become difficult and intrusive. A wild crisis separates the families: Eva and George leave town without notice; Sara moves to New York City, where she tries to finish college, start a career, and build adult relationships.
The author has done a super job of portraying all the characters as three-dimensional, sympathetic individuals. One might say that this book is about "when bad things happen to good people." However, I think it is more about what happens when good people make bad choices and society becomes the enabler of those bad choices. Because the book has no hidden agenda or political slant, it succeeds by inviting the reader into its circle of empathy.
Being the mother of a 16-year-old daughter, the same age as the book's protagonist Sara, I found parts of the book quite painful to read. The thought that my own daughter might be tempted by the lure of a relationship like Sara's and the thought that she might get her heart broken (and worse) was very scary. What was even more disturbing was Sara's alienation from and indifference to her parents, who are portrayed as kind, engaged and encouraging to a fault. It was almost like a declaration that all the conventional wisdom notwithstanding, regardless of how understanding and supportive we are of them, our children march to the tune of a different drummer and we can never truly understand the forces that motivate them. Not only do her parents have to help Sara during her time of greatest need, at no point in the story does Sara acknowledge the pain that she has caused them or express gratitude for all that they have done for her.
I happened to read the classic A Tree grows in Brooklyn soon after reading Girls In Trouble. Set in 1910s Brooklyn, the book's 16-year-old protagonist Francie decides not to spend the night with Joe, the guy who asks her to marry him and who is about to ship out to France. Later he returns home and marries his high school sweetheart. Racked with sorrow and doubt, Francie asks her mother if the outcome might have been different if she had indeed spent the night with Joe. Before her mother can answer, she tells her --
"Don't make up a lie, Mother. Tell me the truth. I promise you that I will never go with a man without being married first - if I ever marry. And if I feel I must - without being married, I will tell you first. That's a solemn promise. So you can tell me the truth without worrying that I will go wrong if I know it."
The mother's response is illuminating as well --
"There are two truths. As a mother I say it would have been a terrible thing for a girl to sleep with a stranger. Horrible things might have happened to you. Your whole life might have been ruined. . But as a woman. I will tell you the truth as a woman. It would have been a very beautiful thing. Because there is only once that you love that way."
I am struck by the contrast between the situations of the two 16-year-old girls living a century apart. Whereas there is trust, mutual respect and honesty between the mother-daughter pair from a hundred years go, the contemporary relationship is marked by indifference and disengagement. There is defiance from Sara and an all too forgiving devotion from her parents.
I find it ironic that the only people who censure Sara are her peers. And even they do so only on the grounds that she was stupid enough to "get caught." Other issues such as responsibility to oneself and to the adopted child, consideration for the parents, delaying gratification, working towards a goal of personal and professional achievement are not brought up by anybody. I cannot help feeling that as a society we are shortchanging our youngsters by expecting too little for them and making too few demands of them.
In the final analysis, I see Girls in Trouble as a modern-day parable. As it turns out, conventional wisdom of yesteryear does trump newfangled ideas of freedom, choice, and responsibility. Much as we might wish that it weren't so, the unique challenges of being female do dictate some of the outcomes in our lives - and, we ignore those constraints to our detriment.
Open adoption turns out not to be the best choice for any of the parties involved - not the birth mother, not the adoptive parents and certainly not the baby. The boyfriend moves on (due to happenstance, but also because ultimately he is not the one left holding the baby) both literally and figuratively. He ends up with an understanding wife, kids, and a satisfying career. The teen mother Sara is left emotionally scarred, continually trying to come to terms with the gaping hole in her life and to unsuccessfully keep looking for people who will accept her preoccupation with that loss. No amount of therapy, separation from her family and personal choice are able to bring her back the peace that she lost in a few months of impetuous rebellion.
My daughter and I discussed the book when she was done reading it. Our takes on the book were sharply different and that made for a very illuminating and worthwhile discussion - each of us was able to see how the other person thinks and feels, and we both got to share our opinions on issues that would otherwise be left mostly unsaid and unexplored. I like to think that the book helped to bridge the vast, unspoken gap between this mother-daughter pair and inched us closer to the insight and honesty of the mother-daughter pair in the century-old book.
And so, I highly recommend the book to book clubs, to mothers and daughters, and even to school guidance departments.
- Amazon readers rating: from 111 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Meeting Rozzy Halfway (1981)
- Lifelines (1982)
- Jealousies (1983)
- Family (1987)
- Into Thin Air (1993)
- Living Other Lives (1999)
- Coming Back to Me (2001)
- Girls in Trouble (2004)
- Pictures of You (2011)
- Is This Tomorrow (May 2013)
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- The official website for Caroline Leavitt
- Reading Group Guide for Coming Back to Me
- Post-Gazette.com review of Coming Back to Me
- BookBrowse.com interview with Caroline Leavitt & Girls in Trouble
- Reading Group Guide for Girls in Trouble
- SF Gate review of Pictures of You
- PopMatters interview on Is This Tomorrow
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About the Author:
Caroline Leavitt won First Prize in Redbook Magazine's Young Writers Contest for her short story, "Meeting Rozzy Halfway," which grew into the novel. She is the recipient of a 1990 New York Foundation of the Arts Award for Fiction for Into Thin Ai r, she was also a National Magazine Award nominee for personal essay, and a judge for the 1990 Fiction Competition for the Writers' Voice Awards in New York City. She teaches "Writing The Novel" online for UCLA Extension Program, and writes a monthly column on books for "A Reading Life" in The Boston Globe Sunday book section. Her essays and articles have appeared in Salon, Parenting, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, McCall's, Redbook, Mademoiselle , The Boston Globe and New Woman , as well in the anthologies.
She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their son Max.