(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie JUN 12, 2005)
"It's okay," I said. I tried to sound like it didn't matter either way, since I wasn't sure what the right answer was.
"Barry and I broke up,"' she said.
"He moved out."
"Oh." I tried not to sound sad, but for a second it really hit me that I'd probably never see him again.
"I guess it's just a little lonely here without you," she said.
"Well," I said, "that's too bad. About Barry, I mean."
"You know what?"' she said. "It's not. Because he was an asshole. I have to say, Jasira, I feel terrible about what went on here last summer. When I took his side over yours."
"No," she said. "It's not. Not at all."
"Well," I said, "I guess I really should finish out the school year here. I like my school."
"Oh,"' she said. "I hadn't realized that.'
"I learn a lot there."
"I thought you didn't like it."
"No," I said. "I do."
"I thought you didn't like Daddy."
I didn't know what to say to that. She was right, in a way. I didn't like Daddy. But I was used to him. And I didn't want to have to leave and get used to her all over again. It was too much work.
"Well," my mother said curtly. "I guess I must've misunderstood. Okay then. See you next week. Sleep tight. Bye." And she hung up on me.
Towelhead is a tale of burgeoning adolescence, narrated by thirteen year-old Jasira Maroun, the product of an inter-cultural marriage. Her mother, an American Irish Catholic and her father, a Lebanese Christian, met in college and wed soon after. They parted during their daughter's fifth year.
"My mother's boyfriend got a crush on me, so she sent me to live with my Daddy. I didn't want to live with Daddy. He has a weird accent and came from Lebanon." Thus, Jasira begins her story. Her narrative may sound more like that of an ten year-old, rather than an adolescent girl living in 21st century America, but she does get her facts straight. When her mother discovers that live-in boyfriend Barry is paying inappropriate attention to daughter Jasira's budding sexually, she blames the girl, and sends her away from home in Syracuse, NY, to live with her father in Houston, Texas. Gail Monahan, Jasira's mom, informs her that she "was always walking around with her boobs sticking out." How could Barry help but notice? Some people should never have children!
Jasira's father, Kifat Maroun, is an educated man with conservative views and a stone-age mentality. Adjusting to life with him is challenging, to say the least. He doesn't care for the girl's blossoming womanhood anymore than his ex-wife does, especially when she begins to menstruate after a few weeks in Houston. It is about this time that he tells her she is "sagging" and takes her to buy seven uncomfortable underwire bras, although she has had her own brassieres for some time. Underwires hurt. 34-C?! No, Mr. Maroun is not a happy man! Dad expresses his anger through continual verbal abuse, which occasionally turns into smacks and slaps, and then becomes more violent. He has no problem coping with his own sexual and emotional needs, however, and finds a girlfriend soon after Jasira's arrival. He begins to leave his daughter for 2 or more days at a time, so he can stay with his lady love, of course. He tried having the woman over to his house, initially, but found she paid too much attention to Jasira. "You hog all the attention," he said. "I don't know how you do it, but you do." Charming. After all, big guys need attention too, and thirteen is old enough to spend a few unsupervised nights alone.
At school, Jasira is called "towelhead," "camel jockey," and worse. The kids are well aware that America is about to enter the first Gulf War, and Jasira becomes an easy target. She finds it difficult to make friends and begins fixating on Mr. Vuoso, the father of the boy she babysits. Mr. Vuoso, a married Army reservist with a large collection of Playboy magazines, seems to be more interested in Jasira than mom's boyfriend Barry ever was, with unfortunate results. Then Thomas, a black schoolmate, takes an interest in her. But her parents do not want her hanging out with an African American. An aside here, Jasira is by no means a Lolita-like character. She is no "nymphet," nor does she use sex to manipulate. She is naive, lonely, insecure, chock-full of raging hormones, with no one to confide in.
I was really looking forward to reading this highly publicized novel. However, now that I have completed it, I am disappointed by the lack of depth in the characters. Almost all of them, with the exception of Jasira, are cardboard-flat and possess few redeeming qualities. How can so many people be so bad, so consistently? Both of Jasira's parents totally lack affect, (both of them?), human decency and basic kindness. They appear to be suffering from narcissistic personality disorders in their absorption with self, their sense of entitlement, lack of empathy and arrogance. Having an Arab Christian as a major character is purely gratuitous. Ms. Erian offers the reader little information on the man's rich cultural background, his professional experiences at NASA, or on his thoughts as an Arab-American in a country mobilizing for war against an Arab nation. What she gives us is a fiendish stereotype, who dislikes his ex-wife, hates his daughter and despises his mother, who calls frequently from Lebanon. The neighbors, Melina and Gil are a bit more fleshed-out, but not much. Their relationship with Jasira is a breath of fresh air, but the resolution between the couple, the girl and her parents is not at all credible, especially at the book's conclusion.
As I mentioned, for the first half of the novel Jasira sounds much younger than her 13 years. Her thought processes and dialogue are just too immature to be believable. She is surprisingly unsophisticated regarding her changing body. I grew up many years ago, way back in the 20th century, and still knew more than she seems to. We were taught in school, health class, back then! Then there's the media, libraries, magazines, and girl talk - just too many available sources for Jasira to remain believably ignorant. However, her intense focus on sexuality, indicative of young people experiencing major hormonal, social and educational changes, and her bewilderment, is extremely well portrayed by the author. The girl's need to be touched and cuddled is obvious, as is her ambivalence about her relationship with Mr. Vuoso. She is so starved for affection that she mistakes abuse for closeness and caring. She remains quite passive though, almost dazed, in her actions and thoughts throughout most of the abuse she suffers. I am surprised by her lack of anger, especially since most of the adults in her life betray her big time.
In spite of myself, I found Towelhead often entertaining, in a voyeuristic, titillating kind of way. But why should a book portraying graphic physical and sexual child abuse entertain? I found the narrative to be shallow and contrived at times. Ms. Erian seems content with the facile resolution. An example is the ending, which leaves much to be desired. I had really expected much more. I have read many positive reviews for Towelhead, and feel like I am either totally out of sync, or the bystander crying, "The Emperor is not wearing clothes!"
- Amazon readers rating: from 64 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Towelhead at SimonSays.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Movies from Books:
- Towelhead (2007)
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- Bold Type Magazine on Alicia Erian
- Boston.com article on Alicia Erian
- BookReporter.com interview with Alicia Erian
- The New York Times review of Towelhead
- Moorish Girl review of Towelhead
- Salon.com review of Towelhead
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About the Author:
Alicia Erian received her B.A. in English from Binghamton University, and my M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College..... grew up in Syracuse, New York. Her work has appeared in Playboy, Zoetrope, Nerve, The Iowa Review, and other publications.
She currently teaches creative writing at Wellesly College in Massachusetts.