This edition of What I Read is brought to you by thrift and synchronicity. Allow me to explain. A few weeks ago, I thrifted copies of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Tana French’s The Secret Place. Around the same time, my husband’s habit of getting sucked into watching crappy movies on TV (and pulling me in along with him) sent me down a rabbit hole that left me binge-watching Skins on Netflix. What do they all have in common? Teenagers. And all I can say is: teenagers, man. Thank God I’m not one anymore.
Let’s start with My Brilliant Friend. I liked it but I wasn’t wowed by it. I’m kinda struggling to figure out why it was a literary sensation, and there is no snark intended in that question. The writing was good and the story was interesting enough but it didn’t feel memorable to me. I liked Elena/Lenu, and I found myself identifying with her (I was once a young girl who self-identified as the “smart one” not the pretty or popular one). In contrast, Lila/Lina didn’t feel like a real person. She seemed to be this accumulation of different traits and impulses that didn’t make a heck of a lot of sense as a whole. The friendship between the two wasn’t necessarily what kept me turning the pages; I did get invested in the various other plot lines. Enough that I want to find out what happens next … though probably not quite enough to read the next book. Is it terrible for me to admit I’m thinking about reading the plot synopses of the other Neapolitan novels online?
Moving on, I have enjoyed reading all of Tana French’s books, though the plots have a tendency to leave me feeling like I’m still grasping for some resolution that’s just out of reach. It’s a bit frustrating, that, to be honest. Anyway, The Secret Place comes closest of all French’s books to a fulsome resolution of the main mystery at least, though there are still plot points that are never fully elucidated. I have given up trying to do that with these novels. This book was probably my favourite of hers, though I think that has to do a lot with the timing — I was reading it while in the midst of watching Skins so I was already immersed in the right “scene” which made it easy for me to connect to the characters’ POVs and made the book really come alive. Normally, I have zero interest in revisiting things that involve or are of interest to teenagers; I hated my own teenage years, and feel no nostalgia whatsoever. More on Skins in a moment.
The Secret Place also hit home because I attended an all-girls Catholic school in the UK when I was around the same age as the protagonists. I was not a boarder, but many of the inter-group dynamics were intimately familiar — once I allowed the memory floodgates to open. My school experience was miserable for entirely mundane reasons that did not involve murder, thankfully. There were no boys’ school near ours, a fact which a lot of us secretly or not-so-secretly lamented at the time, but reading this book made me very grateful for the fact. My friends and I still spent a good chunk of our “free time” talking about boys (mostly in the abstract), and I can’t imagine what it would have been like had we had actual subjects at close range upon whom to focus our attention. I think the book does a great job of getting into the mindset of teenage girls, though as an adult woman reading the book, I have to say that this mindset created an almost suffocating atmosphere. It was very effective in driving up the tension, which is a plus for a mystery novel, I suppose. As with her other books, French seems to delight in offering mysteries with a small, defined cast of suspects (in this case, two rival girl “gangs”). To her credit, this time around, I did not guess the identify of the killer until just before the “reveal”.
Ok, so let’s talk about Skins now. For the curious, the crappy movie that led me to the show was Jack The Giant Slayer. I was mildly taken aback to realize that the protagonist was played by the adorkable kid from About A Boy, which I mostly remember as one of the first movies, along with Bridget Jones’ Diary, that heralded the reinvention of Hugh Grant as a non-floppy haired (more or less redeemable) lovable rogue. This was at least his second or third reinvention, for those of us ancients who remember the Divine Brown-era Hugh Grant, but one of my faves. Anyway, the titular “boy” has, um, grown up. Which is not surprising because, um, FIFTEEN freaking years have passed since that movie came out — in real time, if not in my own head space. I find it best not to focus on what was “then” and simply, ahem, appreciate the present. If I have reached “creepy old dude” territory, I don’t want to know.
So, Skins. It’s one of those rare shows that portrays believable teenagers. In that sense, it reminded me a lot of My So-Called Life, though my own personal experience was more akin to Angela’s than, say, Michelle’s or Jal’s. Skins definitely has “soap opera-ish” elements in its DNA, but this generally didn’t come across as unrealistic; all teenagers have their inner drama queens, you know? Come to think of it, there wasn’t a single character with whom I identified most closely, but I grew fond of all of the main ones in the first “generation” (seasons 1-2). I think that’s almost certainly a function of my age; had I watched this show at 15-16, I’m sure my reaction would have been different. Now, I can’t help but look at these characters from the perspective of a mom, rather than a peer. I want to have come-to-Jesus talks with all of them, while simultaneously realizing how out of touch I would appear to them in that kind of situation. In a way, watching the show is a bit of a preview of what I will have to deal with in another decade or so. From that perspective, it’s kind of terrifying.
On the other hand, from the perspective of a former teenager, it’s kind of enlightening. Man, I dodged a bullet; I was a late bloomer with a really boring adolescence. As disappointing as I remember it being at the time, it allowed me to focus on my academics, and skip a lot of heartache by the sounds of it. Teenage boys, who were these mysterious creatures to me at 16, are often kinda terrible it turns out. Didn’t realize it at the time, glad I never got to find out first hand. Still, this was food for thought for me, as the mom of a (future teenage) boy.
With all that said, I think I am happy to be done with teenagers for a while. I don’t have anything in my Netflix queue at the moment, so feel free to send me some recc’s, but my reading agenda is grown-up all the way. I think I may tackle Rosamunde Pilcher’s Coming Home next, along with A Scandalous Life, a biography of the notorious Lady Jane Digby. Got other suggestions for me? Leave them in a comment.
Next week: winter has come, people! It’s time to talk Game of Thrones. Yessss!