This Friday marked the official date of the Harry Potter epilogue, and thousands gathered to wish our favorite teen saga well as it rode off into the sunset on Platform 9 ¾. Well, something about the trials and tribulations of teenagehood must stay with us, because books about adolescent angst and teen survival against all odds are always popular. Teenage life can represent the powerlessness we feel when we’re facing one of those cruel, impenetrable systems seemingly designed to make us fail. It can also represent coming into oneself, developing a resolute moral compass despite the easier alternative. These three new book club novels all present teen protagonists trying to get through life and maintain friendships through their changing lives.
1. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallant ($27): Turtle (or Julia) Alveston is a 14-year-old girl who, thanks to her father, is not only a survivor but also a survivalist, living in the woods of Northern California and training with guns and knives for her father’s imagined end-of-the-world scenarios. Her father is far more immediately dangerous than the future he presents though; charismatic and controlling, he’s isolated Turtle since the death of her mother, and, to no-one’s surprise, that control manifests itself in emotional, physical, and sexual violence.
“When she was six, he had her put on a life jacket for cushion, told her not to touch the hot ejected casings, and started her on a bolt-action Ruger .22, sitting at the kitchen table and bracing the gun on a rolled-up towel. Grandpa must’ve heard the shots on his way back from the liquor store… she could hear them, Grandpa saying, ‘Goddamn it, Martin, this is no way to raise a little girl,’ and Daddy not saying anything for a long time and then saying, ‘This is my house, remember that, Daniel.’” Turtle shuts herself off from everyone around her; though her teacher Anna and her grandfather try to watch out for her, the death of her grandfather brings with it a new level of isolation.
She’s an outcast, until a friendly boy named Jacob develops feelings for her. Jacob is sweet and funny and comes from a functional, happy family, and for the first time, Turtle really sees what she’s missing and wants to get away from what she has. Using the skills she’s learned, she sets out to change her life with a courage well beyond her years. Horror and suspense master Stephen King says, “The word ‘masterpiece’ has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one.” Turtle’s strength might be an inspiration to teens and adults alike.
2. The Burning Girl by Claire Messud ($26): “It’s a different story depending on where you start: who’s good, who’s bad, what it all means. Each of us shapes our stories so they make sense of who we think we are. I can begin when Cassie and I were best friends; or I can begin when we weren’t anymore; or I can begin at the dark end and tell it all backward.” A different teenaged Julia stars in Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. Everything always seems so overwhelming and important when you’re a teen, and the Julia captures this in her despairing narration as she grows apart from her best friend Cassie, who disappears from her life, first figuratively, then literally.
Cassie is loud and in charge and a little wild, encouraging law-abiding Julia to break some of the rules of boring Royston, Massachusetts, that she’d never think to crack herself. It’s a classic case of opposites attracting, as the two manage to be the closest of childhood friends. But becoming a teenager often comes with self-absorption and casual cruelty, and when Cassie leaves Julia behind for the popular kids, there seems to be no turning back. To make matters worse, she steals Julia’s crush only to casually break up with him.
Then, Cassie’s mother Bev falls in love with Dr. Anders Shute, who has an unhealthy interest in Bev controlling Cassie to a harmful extent. Is this Cassie’s comeuppance for her behavior? Should Julia do something, and can she get past her own selfishness? Or is she too caught up in her new friends and new identity to care? The Burning Girl theorizes about what friendship can be, the roles we play, and how little we may truly understand each other, even our best friends.
3. Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens ($18): “Boys. My boys. I’ve been collecting them like baseball cards since third grade.” In Otters Holt, Kentucky, the small town where 17-year-old Elizabeth “Billie” McCaffrey grows up, the overwhelming narrative is that boy and girl fall in love, get married, and have kids. Billie, though, has always been lacking in gender conformity; labeled a “tomboy” and “one of the boys,” she has a small, loyal cadre of friends in “The Hexagon” — Woods, Davey, Mash, Fifty, and the only other girl, Janie Lee.
Trouble presents itself when the Hexagon potentially becomes a triangle. Janie Lee confesses her love of Woods to Billie, who realizes a couple of troubling things: Billie’s also interested in Woods. And she’s also interested in Janie Lee. Considering, 11 years earlier, she’d been relegated to Woods’ “best man” in a Ring Pop-pretend marriage ceremony to Janie Lee, she’s got some idea where she stands. Most of all, she doesn’t want the close-knit bond they’ve all developed to change, even if romance seems enticing; increasing one intimacy, she fears, might decrease another.
When Billie convinces the gang to destroy the church’s old microwave, the resulting near-disastrous fire results in mandated community service that brings them even closer together. Billie has to maintain her friendships, question her sexuality, and get through high school, all at the same time. Luckily, her friends can help her think outside the box, because “the Hexagon is pretty bad at supposed to when we’re all under one roof.”
What books appeal to your inner teen? Tag us in your next dramatic read @BritandCo.
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