Girl: A Novel
Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1994
Things that I remembered about Girl before re-reading:
- a feeling of how monumentally great it was
- an image of a drawing of a hallway with red lockers (maybe the illustration from when an excerpt was published in Sassy?)
-being alone at a show
-finding clothes to wear that made you feel right
-feeling weird about wearing those clothes at school
-an image of standing outside of someone’s house who you really like but aren’t sure of your relationship, and not knowing if they’re in there or if you even want to try to knock on the door
Things that were in the book that I didn’t remember:
-frozen yogurt at Scamp’s and Taco Time
-working on the high school newspaper
-the importance of wearing one’s hair up
-the sadness of how someone’s grandpa takes all day to walk around the block
Why are you re-reading this novel anyway? What’s it all about?
If you were a teenager in the 90s the YA section of the library (if there was one) was not filled with books about your youth culture. There were books about youths, sure, and good classic books like The Outsiders. But nothing about the bands you liked or the scene you wanted to be a part of (I’m assuming you are me in this hypothetical situation).
For that kind of news, you would read Sassy magazine. Where they sometimes published fiction. Which is where you learned about Weetzie Bat. And where you first read a story about a girl named Andrea Marr, who was starting her sophomore year at Hillside High School in Portland Oregon. Her sort of weird loner friend Cybil, who everyone knew as a soccer jock, met a boy downtown named Todd Sparrow, and he impressed her so much she had to do something, so she shaved her head. Because of Cybil’s hair statement, a boy in school suggests they start a band. And so Andrea, through Cybil, gains access to a scene.
don't ask me how many times I've watched Empire Records. Enough to only picture Cybil as Deb. photo by Jimmy J. Aquino, click through for live tweeting of that classic film.
Girl follows Andrea up until her graduation and in and out of friendships, through short paragraphs of first-person narration that aren’t exactly journal entries, more like someone talking to themselves in their head. Andrea loses her virginity, finds the best vintage stores where she buys what her mom calls her “granny clothes”, is sent to work as maintenance crew for a summer camp because of her new interest in said clothes and going to shows at the Outer Limits, starts applying herself to school and getting into college as a way to avoid that fate for another summer, finally meets Todd Sparrow, and sees herself turning into the kind of girl she used to look up to in awe when she was a couple years younger–I mean, she literally sees that look on the faces of people around her:
“Carla turned to me and said ‘I dont’ know if you know this but when Todd goes to Seattle he stays with a girl named Tori and if you want to call her and find out if he’s out of jail, I’ll give you her number.’ I said okay and I took the number and sat back and we all watched Rebecca dance. And all these boys kept coming up to us and it was annoying and Carla wanted to go outside . So me and Cybil went with her and it was a lot better outside because everyone leaned on cars and sat on the curb just like at Outer Limits. And I asked Carla what Tori was like and how old was she and Carla said she was pretty weird and she was twenty-five and she was manic-depressive. And all the time we were talking guys were staring at us and girls too and I remembered Outer Limits and how Carla was always the coolest girl and whatever people were with her were always the coolest people.” (161)
Andrea was the perfect mixture of naive and cool for a slightly younger teen stuck in the suburbs on which to project her own longings, hopes, and fears. It doesn’t hurt that she’s never really described, looks-wise, so the reader can fully identify herself as Andrea.
Does this novel hold up after a reread?
It more than holds up. As evidenced by my lists above, I retained strong sensory impressions of the feelings Girl left with me but not much else. It was intense reading it as a teenager but just as enjoyable reading as an adult – I got the rush of remembering my original love of the book and an added layer of looking back at how the characters and their actions come across as an adult.
For example, Andrea’s relationship with Todd Sparrow is obviously exhilarating and new but also sad and emotionally trying–they have great conversations about death, but she also has to ration her time with him through a complex system of symbols in her planner so that she doesn’t ask for too much of him. I could appreciate the intensity of her feelings while also seeing how Nelson slips in details of Todd Sparrow that make me pity him as an adult – he never has money, he’s always making Andrea pay for things, and he’s a 22 year old who is using Andrea as a 16 year old girl-on-the-side. You can see that his life experiences have wounded him so he’s not really emotionally mature or available.
The great thing is that you can tell that Andrea kind of knows this, too, but not in an acknowledged way. She’s still totally in love and lust with him, and her reservations take the form of trying to figure out how not to look like a groupie and not seem too whiny around Todd–saving face for herself because she knows it’s not a real relationship, but also loving the intense feelings she has with him. In fact, I’d say the skeeviest dude in the book is not Todd, but Scott Haskell, who takes advantage of Andrea while she’s passed out to use her as real-life jerking off material.
photo by flickr user Dougtone
It’s the voice that Nelson creates for Andrea that makes this novel work and will make it last years down the line. Unlike many young adult novels using diary-style narration, Andrea doesn’t address the reader and Nelson doesn’t use a device to explain why she’s narrating her experience. Her voice stands alone, confident and direct. It doesn’t have to explain itself, it just sucks you in.
There’s something about the teenage experience where you worry simultaneously about the big things and the little things, and you feel like you’re just on the cusp of figuring everything out–because finally you have some freedom to make something happen with the emotions that you feel. Everything is important and receives the same weight of thought, whether it’s if you shop at the same store for all of your clothes, or if some guy breaks your friend’s eardrum at the school lunch table.
Here’s an example of Andrea’s voice, combining all the big and little things in her life in a moment that is both important and forgettable the next day:
“After that we drove around and parked and made out. Then we talked and Mark said how he thought Cybil was okay and how he defended her to his friends when she shaved her head. And he thought the Outer Limits scene was all right in some ways. He was leading up to asking me for sex but I changed the subject to clothes. I complained that my Gap skirt was too boring but he said I looked really cute in it and how I was the cutest girl at the show. And then he told me how sexy I was and how I had a great body. And then let down the seat and got on top of me and we made out more intense than ever. And it was so strange because he was Mark Pierce, senior, with a car, and very cute, who millions of girls liked. And I felt like I should like him more and I tried to but it was hard in the dark when he was just this big weight grinding into you.” (22)
Another great thing about the story is how it captures the microcosm of high school. It does focus on Andrea and her friendship with Cybil, but it also follows the various transformations of several other characters – Greg, Richard, Darcy, Rebecca, Marjorie, and Betsy Warren to name a few, as well as the mysterious outside-of-high-school figures like Todd Sparrow, Carla who is always the coolest girl in the room, Nick from Pax, and Eric the owner of K Club. Because Andrea narrates the book like she’s talking to herself, it comes off as natural to know about these people–shown passing in and out of Andrea’s awareness. In this way the world of Girl is unmistakeably the real world and never loses its authenticity.
It’s also not just a story about a romance. Andrea has her one big love, but the focus of the story is really on her and Cybil and the intersection and contrast between their two ways of becoming. Andrea is narrating, so we see it all from her perspective, but Nelson puts enough in there for us to see the ways that Cybil is lost that Andrea can’t objectively see.
So, if I liked My So-Called Life…
you will definitely like Girl. Andrea is Angela’s gritter West-Coast counterpart.
Where can I read more about the eternally cute Blake Nelson?
Blake Nelson just wrote a sequel to Girl called Dream School (that I have and am excited and scared to read), so there’s been a happymaking amount of coverage of him lately around the blogs. Here’s a few links:
Interview at Rookie Mag:
“I got a lot of it wrong, I realized as I got older. But one thing I’ve noticed is that people are insecure about sex, so if a female character says: ‘Whenever I kiss a boy, my ears tingle,’ the female reader thinks: ‘Oh no! Why don’t my ears tingle?’ instead of thinking: ‘That doesn’t really happen! This is a guy writing this, not a girl!’ Also, I think in some cases, if you have a good story going, people will go with it.”
Interview at the Hairpin:
“GIRL was originally an adult book. I wrote it basically for Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth] for some reason. And for my friends who had been through the ’80s punk scene of when I was in high school. The tone of it was originally ‘look how stupid we all were.’ And how adorably confused. But then about halfway through, I realized that the kids of that time (the Sassy ’90s) were going to be the real audience. “
Profile at The Millions
Interview at Teenage Film
This guy knows how to write.
Should I read his other books?
Yes! Especially Destroy All Cars. I’m constantly trying to get people to read that one. It’s a funny book that has boy appeal.
Is there anything else you want to say, Tessa?
Yes, I’m wondering if the model on the cover of the original paperback, credited as Michelle Madonna, is the same Michelle Madonna who is on a reality TV show called Queen Bees. Does anyone know?
Also, Blake Nelson, your poem “Never Change” was up on my wall for a long, long time. Thank you for writing that.
I got this book from:my own personal bookshelf.