Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Feminism and Teen Melodrama: Katie McGarry's CRASH INTO YOU

In general, I haven't been a big fan of the emergent New Adult subgenre. Coming of age during the 1970s and 80s, the glory days of young adult realism, I'd been trained to prefer deep, psychologically complex, and above all, realistic novels of adolescent experience to books that took a more melodramatic approach to the teenage years. But ever since a commenter (Rebecca Rogers Maher) on an earlier post pointed out that melodrama as a genre is often preferred by oppressed social groups, I've been interrogating the grounds upon which I'd dismissed this new teen literature. Adolescents are in the midst of learning to navigate the world beyond the family, exploring social structures in which they often have little power or control. In contrast, to read a steady diet of YA realism means imbibing the genre's structural message: problems are internal, psychological, often of a protagonist's own making, and can be solved if a protagonist confronts and overcomes his or her personal demons. To delve into a genre like melodrama, which is typically structured around problems external to the protagonist, might be a way to reject realism's structural message, to insist that not all problems stem from an individual's inner psychology. Or at least to entertain the idea that the external world may play just as big a role as an individual's psychological weaknesses in impeding an adolescent's life goals.

Thinking about teen melodrama in this way helped me to better appreciate one of the most popular contemporary YA/New Adult melodrama writers: Katie McGarry. Her latest release, Crash into You, tells the story of two high schoolers whose lives often feel completely out of their control. From the outside, rich-girl Rachel seems to live a life of privilege. But having grown up the youngest of five, and repeatedly told she was conceived so her mother could have another daughter to replace the older sister who died of leukemia, Rachel feels like the invisible girl in her family. Always expected to be as perfect as the dead Colleen, to keep her mother from falling into the debilitating depression that hit her after Colleen's death, Rachel has to connive and sneak in order to indulge in the one thing she truly loves: tinkering with her beloved 2005 Mustang GT and driving it as fast as she dares. Succumbing to panic attacks whenever she's called on to speak in public certainly doesn't fall within the parameters of perfect daughterhood, either, and so Rachel has been pretending for the past two years that her own mental illness is just as nonexistent as is her own mother's. But as her parents and older brothers begin to push her to speak at the leukemia fundraisers her mother organizes, hiding her condition grows more and more difficult. Everyone in the family considers Rachel weak, in need of their protection; no one realizes how hard she's working to protect them all.

Fleeing one night from a particularly grueling fundraiser ("Cinderella ran away because her coach was going to turn back into a pumpkin. I'm running away because I'd rather be knee-deep in axle grease"), Rachel chances upon an illicit street race. She ends up competing against a dangerous-looking guy ("The two opposing parts of my personality, the girl who panics and the girl who loves speed, declare war and the result is a head rush") who helps her escape when the cops arrive. Readers of McGarry's previous books will recognize Isaiah, escapee from the indignities and abuses of the foster care system, cultivator of a bad-ass image, and the one on the short end of the romance stick after his best friend/confused sex partner Beth moved to the suburbs and found love with a good middle-class guy (in Dare You To). But Isaiah's destined for an even greater cross-class romance than Beth's after his car breaks down and swanky Rachel refuses to save herself and leave him behind for the police to capture.

Shunted into the foster care system at the age of six, after his mother was sent to jail for Armed Robbery and Child Endangerment (she'd brought her son along during her heists), Isaiah has spent most of his life struggling to regain mastery over his out-of-control life. Immediately drawn to Rachel, but convinced he's unworthy of this beautiful angel-girl, Isaiah's almost glad to have a real reason to keep away from her: Eric, the organizer of the street races, was robbed by the college boys who led Rachel to the race, and Eric's on the prowl for her, determined to teach her a lesson. The best way to protect Rachel is to steer clear of her.

A comic Rachel would likely appreciate:
1971's Nobody Wants a Girl Auto
 (although by comic's end,
mechanic Lisa wins a job, and the guy)
But in the way of good melodrama, malevolent Eric is not so easy to put off. And soon Isaiah and Rachel are forced to work together to appease the villain, by earning $5000 drag racing to pay him back for his losses. And also in the way of good melodrama, external forces—a betraying friend, an automotive mishap, a gambling-addicted brother—keep pushing the two away from achieving their goal, upping the stakes and drawing them emotionally closer.

Yet in the midst of the melodrama lies an interesting feminist message. Isaiah, determined to keep things under control, insists that he's the only one who will race Rachel's car (given Rachel's earlier loss to him during a race, she doesn't protest too much). Isaiah also doesn't tell Rachel everything he's planning or doing in his quest to gain the money. "I'm doing it to protect you," he protests when his well-intentioned deceptions come crashingly to light. But Rachel isn't having it: "You're doing it to protect yourself. You never really let me in, did you?" Just like her brothers, just like her parents, Isaiah has used the pretext of protecting her in order to appease his own psychological needs. And Rachel finally realizes that "I'm tired of being protected," tired of serving everyone else's needs but her own.

Only after finally breaking down and speaking honestly with his estranged mother does Isaiah realize that his own need to protect Rachel is just as much a need for control as was his mother's refusal to let a kind foster family adopt him, or to allow his grandparents to take him in. Only by recognizing Rachel as an autonomous individual, and accepting her right to take chances, to make decisions, to act in ways that might lead to results he cannot control, can Isaiah prove worthy of her. Rachel's triumphant moment on the race track inverts film melodrama's embrace of traditional gender roles in a particularly satisfying way:

     Her eyes have a contagious gleam. "I want to do that again." [says Rachel after winning the race]
     "You're going to make scaring the shit out of me a habit, aren't you?" [replies Isaiah]
     Her lips whisper against mine as she speaks. "And you won't do a thing to stop it."
     "No." As much as it kills me. "I won't."

Though the continued melodrama of the novel's denouement seems rather needlessly (and unintentionally) punishing, it echoes the message of the novel's climax: "I've got to let Rachel make her own way, even if it means watching her stumble," Isaiah affirms to himself when she rejects yet another well-intentioned attempt to help her. Isaiah becomes not the savior, not the protector, but the symbolic reward for a girl who has finally learned that pretending to be weak only weakens the ones she loves. A message rare in traditional melodrama, but immensely welcome in a New Adult novel.

And here, weirdly enough, I've come full circle on the issue of control. Am I really only praising this melodramatic novel because at its end, it incorporates the internal psychology of the YA genre? Even if that internal psychological message is about giving up the need for control?

Photo Credits:
2005 Mustang GT: Kimballstock
Nobody Wants a Girl Auto Mechanic:  Career Girl Romances #66, courtesy of Sequential Crush

Katie McGarryCrash Into You
Harlequin Teen, 2013


  1. It’s interesting that you contrast internal and external conflict. I think that, too, is class-influenced. Although I personally spend a lot of time examining and challenging my internal motivations and reactions and work hard on growing as an individual person, I recognize that it’s a luxury to be able to do that. I have time for such things because although I have dealt with some layers of oppression, I’m not currently starving, homeless, experiencing relentless subtle or aggressive racism or harassment, or living with the threat of immediate physical violence. Members of oppressed social groups don’t have the option of focusing only on what’s going on internally – external forces exert real pressure on their lives.

    Melodrama recognizes that. It also takes what otherwise might be an internal problem and puts it on the table in the form of an extreme external problem so that it can be openly acknowledged, confronted, and resolved. Once externalized, examined and dealt with openly, the solution can be integrated into the character’s internal life – she can learn something about herself and grow. Good melodrama allows for that internal growth too.

  2. I have loved every book in this series and Katie didn't disappoint with this one. She through in some major twists and turns and I just fell in Love with Isaiah the broken boy who I just want to hug and hide.. I couldn't stop reading this book one sit read here and then a second.. Loved it..