Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Review: Older Men by Norma Klein

Elise's father loves little girls. Elise is the apple of her father's eye. He adores her. He takes her into Manhattan, buys her gifts, and dotes on her. His relationship with Elise is so important, it is exclusive of all others, including her mother. Her mother, already a delicate and quiet woman, has been relegated more and more into the shadows until her depression overwhelms her and her husband has her committed to a mental hospital.

When Elise graduates from high school, a few weeks later, she surprises everyone by deciding she'd rather spend the summer at her grandmother's apartment in New York City than stay with her father in Connecticut. In New York, she finds a job at a bookstore where she eventually meets Kara, her father's step-daughter from his first marriage. Elise has always heard how Kara was a lovely girl until she went to college and became "difficult," but the Kara she meets seems terrific. Yes, she is getting divorced from a much older man and she now acknowledges that was a bad case of a daddy complex, but she's moving on and no one understand Elise better. With Kara, and Kara's brother Tim, Elise starts to understand the feelings of ickiness she's been having around her father lately are normal and it's healthy for her to want to stand up for herself and be independent. She also understands that even if it means her father will turn against her, as he did with Kara, it's a price worth paying for keeping your self-esteem and being an adult.

Now Ms. Klein does a truly masterful job of making the relationship between Elise and her father just on the border of inappropriate. It's inappropriate how much he values his daughter over his wife, how he involves Elise in his marital difficulties, and how he wants Elise to stay a little girl forever, but you never get the feeling that he would abuse her. It's a fine line to straddle, but she does. And this is unique in Ms. Klein's world too, as most of her parents are pretty decent parents, is a little lax and self-involved; but Elise's father is a pretty terrible father, although he would say he's an excellent one. Yes, Elise has gotten everything she's ever wished for, but at what cost? Her mother is a simpering, sniveling waste who never stands up for herself until it is almost too late. She does redeem herself in the end.

This book's plot is more complicated, somewhat more dark, and Elise goes through more changes than any other of Ms. Klein's protagonists. I thought because Elise is a little younger (16) and the book is shorter, that it might be appropriate for younger teens, but I'm very glad I reread it as the content itself with her creepy father and depressed mother is very heavy, not to mention she does have sex. But as usual, Ms. Klein handles tricky and uncomfortable situations with aplomb and delicacy. Elise does learn to stand up for herself, but also to be true to herself. Her situation doesn't miraculous reverse itself overnight, and yes, some parts will not end well, but the important thing is that we and Elise realize Elise is strong enough to handle what difficulties may come her way. I think that usually is the key note in a young adult novel - all the plots may be different, but the commonality is learning who you are, and learning to stand up for yourself.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This is a reread from my personal collection.

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