A Review of Same Difference by Siobhan Vivian
PUSH (Scholastic), 2009
By REBECCA, April 4, 2012
I’m reviewing Same Difference in celebration of Siobhan Vivian’s The List, which came out on April 1st. Make sure to check back on Friday when we will be interviewing Siobhan! Note: We have two copies of The List to give away on Friday, so start thinking about your best high school stories to leave in the comments. Two lucky winners will win The List!
Emily: Sheltered suburbanite torn between her newfound love of art and what people expect of her
Meg: Emily’s best friend who loves their New Jersey town, Emily, and her boyfriend, Rick
Fiona: Overly confident art student with control issues whom Emily worships
Robyn: Fiona’s sidekick, an art gallery-orphan with a snarky streak
Adrian: Awestruck art boy with a major crush on Fiona and a talent for comics
Yates: Emily’s TA/crush who gives her confidence in her art . . . and turns her into some
Claire: Emily’s sporty little sis who supports her summer transformation
It may only be a quick train ride from Emily’s home in suburban NJ to her summer art program in Philadelphia, but a lot can change in one summer. Especially with a new friend like Fiona . . .
Emily is an observant and talented girl who has always been happy with her life, hanging out with her best friend, Meg, at the pool and the local Starbucks and buying the same tank top in different colors. When Emily begins to explore her artistic talents in Philadelphia, all the things that once felt personal to her and Meg begin to feel generic, boring, and chosen for her, like her rosebud wallpaper and bedroom set. When Emily turn her powers of observation on her own life and habits—to say nothing of her tank tops—she finds them wanting. The trouble is that for every thing she learns about herself she grows more apart from Meg and her old life.
Same Difference is the story of a growth spurt. It’s unavoidable and uncomfortable, but once the immediate pain is over you wonder how you were ever anything else. Siobhan Vivian’s world building is wonderful, particularly her ability to render the same places different as Emily grows. On her first day in the city, Philadelphia seems scary and foreign to Emily and so does her art class:
“I unload a few supplies, like a big drawing pad and the red plastic art box that holds my pencils and brushes. Glancing around the room, I notice I’m the only one with brand-new, untouched materials—paintbrushes wrapped in plastic, tubes of paint that need to be peeled open, unsharpened pencils. I’m a screaming newbie. I decide not to put on my smock, since no one else is wearing one.
Five more minutes and the classroom is practically full. Pixie Girl with the red scarf enters the room huffing and puffing, I guess because she had to take the stairs. She climbs onto a stool right next to Shadow Girl. Their eyes scan each other briefly before they nod and roll their eyes, as if they’ve just shared a silent joke . . . They seem like they should be friends” (39).
But then, when she gets home to New Jersey, instead of feeling like her old self, her friends seem just as alien to her.
I think Emily’s a brave character for Vivian to write. She’s so malleable and eager to be . . . cooler, for lack of a better word, that it would be easy for her to be a total dishrag, or to be unsympathetic. Instead, Vivian manages to tap into that exquisite humiliation that I’m sure we all remember from high school: of wanting to seem like a new mode of self-expression is a totally natural extension of our selves. Same Difference is a great entry into the wonderful category of books that map super-intense, almost romantic female friendships that involve the characters expressing their identities in their developing tastes (in music, books, fashion, etc.). I’m totally a fan of these books because they manage to capture that elusive time when a new friend could totally revolutionize the way you saw the world.
what was this book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
Same Difference reminds us of how contingent everything is. If Emily hadn’t gone to this summer art program, would she have ended up a totally different person with a totally different life? If she’d become best friends with Adrian instead of Fiona, how would that have changed things? I really love the arc of this novel—it’s divided up by month, from June to September, and the short time period paired with Emily’s extreme growth make for really dynamic story-telling and character-building.
The characters are really strong. Emily’s transformation is not only believable, but feels almost inevitable. Fiona is an amazing vivisection of the line between identity and the cultivation of taste because of how it reflects on her. The biggest treat for me, though, were the descriptions of clothes, hair, and art of which Same Difference is chock-full.
“Robyn has on gray leggings, a blousy yellow tank top that could almost be a dress, and a pair of saddle shoes. Fiona wears a pair of skinny frayed jean shorts cut at the knees, a cropped navy vest buttoned tight around her chest, and these vampy open-toe red heels. I think the vest might have come from a little boy’s Catholic school uniform or something—it fits her like a corset. A tangle of long, thin gold chains hangs from her neck. It’s the kind of outfit that belongs in a magazine, the sort of thing that you can’t imagine anyone would wear in real life. But there she is, in real life, wearing it” (58-9).
There is a class trip to a museum, and I simply cannot read or watch anything involving a class trip to a museum without invoking the episode of My So-Called Life (“Why Jordan Can’t Read”) when Angela’s class goes to the museum and Angela loses the note she’s written describing the pathos of her love for Jordan and he finds it . . . In fact, I feel like a lot of the things that I enjoy about Same Difference Tessa discussed in her review of Blake Nelson’s Girl on Monday, including it’s association with My So-Called Life. (Who am I kidding? I could find some connection between every book I read and My So-Called Life.)
I moved to Philadelphia in September and began teaching at an art college very like the one where Emily attends her summer program, so I’ve been thinking about this book a lot recently, and about reinventing yourself, so it was a particular delight to re-read Same Difference.
Hey, Dollface by Deborah Hautzig (1978). Val and Chloe are the odd ones out at their Manhattan prep school. Together they pick through thrift stores, hang out in cemeteries, and generally have better taste than everyone. As Val’s feelings for Chloe deepen into romance, she realizes that adults don’t always have all the answers.
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen (2004). Over the course of the summer, Macy, who is doing everything she can to impress her studious and controlled boyfriend, falls in with a ragged band of caterers and finds herself taking risks to be with Wes, an artist who believes in telling the truth, especially when it’s unpleasant.
procured from: bought, on Tessa’s recommendation when I was off to a summer program of my own.
So, come back on Friday for our interview with the wonderful Siobhan Vivian—and bring your best high school stories, be they wonderful or humiliating. I’m sure for some of you these triumphs and tribulations are still fresh; the rest of you can take the time between now and Friday to clear away the cobwebs, have a drink, and dredge up the dirt necessary to win a copy of Siobhan’s The List.