In those happy times, when Anna was a child, and Anna and her mother were on their own, Anna took the end of her mother's story—"And now I have everything"—and held it close, a secret spell, a talisman against the distance and dangers of the world beyond her family. And even though the boyfriends and stepfathers and stepbrothers that begin to revolve through her life show Anna that she's no longer "everything" to her mother, Anna holds even tighter to the story's happy ending as she struggles from childhood to early adolescence: all you need is one special person, and you'll be safe, you'll be loved, you'll be happy ever after.
Such is the message of not only of fairy tales, but also of many a romance novel. And it's lovely to live within that space, to feel safe and loved for the time it takes to read a fairy tale, to read a romance. But if a young girl hears the same story over and over, without realizing that the story doesn't tell the whole story, she can be in danger of spending her whole life looking for that one person who can fulfill all her needs. If not a parent, then a boyfriend, or a boy—or, more likely, a series of boys, mistaking their interest in her body for an interest in her self.
Which is why I decided to feature Erica Lorraine Scheidt's young adult novel, Uses for Boys, on the blog today, despite the fact that it isn't strictly a romance novel. Because it's a book I'd want to give to every girl who, like me, becomes a compulsive romance reader as an adolescent, looking for answers to questions about love and romance between the pages of a novel. For though the story Anna's mother's tells her is personal, biographical, its underlying theme is the same one girls in our culture are spoon-fed from the earliest of ages: find the right "one," and you'll find perpetual happiness. And Anna's story points out the damage that holding tight to such a fairy tale can cause.
Anna turns from her mother toward boys as the object for her search when she is an unpopular thirteen, when Desmond Dreyfus sits down and gropes her on the bus. "I can picture what it's going to be like for me now, what it's going to be like, how he'll introduce me to his friends and how he'll invite me to parties at Lisa Jenner's house and how I'll invite Nancy along and when they ask who invited her, I'll say I did," Anna thinks when the boy sits down beside her again (32). Yet after he uses her to jerk off, in front of two other boys, Desmond stops sitting next to her, stops talking to her. She'd tell her friend Nancy about it, about "how it felt, his hand under my shirt. The exploding warmth," but Nancy has stopped talking to her, too, stopped sitting next to her, stopped looking at her.
And since Nancy won't speak to Anna anymore, Anna decides to turn her attentions to another boy, one as outcast as herself. Bringing him home to her empty house, taking off her shirt, offering herself as a gift in return for the physical pleasure he can give, as well as the emotional connection she imagines he offers: "Joey's here every day after school. He's my family now. Anything's worth this" (38). Yet Joey moves back to Seattle. And another boy sexually assaults her, abuse that shines from her eyes but that her mother cannot see. And so Anna moves on, to another boy, to another apartment, another story: "Josh is a story I tell myself.... A story that's true. I'm telling myself the story of Josh and I look at his profile against the clouded sky. 'I was alone,' I say aloud. 'And then I found you.'" (92).
The lives of adolescent girls, unlike those of fairy tale princesses, rarely end with a "happily ever after," with a prince riding to the rescue to save a girl from sadness and pain. But every girl could use a fairy godmother, one who, like the mother of one of Anna's boyfriends, tells her a different kind of story: "When she says I can do anything, she doesn't mean a boy, a boyfriend, a husband. She means me. Me. I could do anything" (190).
The spare, stark prose in which Scheidt shows us how Anna gradually learns to recognize what's missing from her mother's story, from the stories she's been telling herself, from the stories others have been telling about her, turns what could have been a heavy-handed hand-wringing into a deeply moving rebuttal of the myth that a boy can fill the emptiness girls feel. Only after Anna begins to recognize her own strength, her own power, is she ready to engage in a mutually satisfying, respectful, and loving relationship with another boy, rather than one based not only on how he can use her, but also on how she can use him. Here's hoping that the majority of young romance readers learn the same, lest they become fooled by the message of far too many romance novels: "some day my prince will come. And away to his castle we'll go, To be happy forever, I know."
Snow White on books: Lauren Scanlon, Fairy Tales and Romance Novels
Uses for Boys.
St. Martin's, 2013.
Next time on RNFF:
Sympathy for the romance rapist?