by Hannah Bressler
This is a tale of lust, foreignness, poverty, and human desperation. Lou, a high school exchange student from Australia, comes from a home of poverty and domestic violence to live with a wealthy family in the United States who are quite strange in their own way. She is hoping they will become her salvation. Spoiler Alert: they don't.
The first person narrative brings her poverty and history of trauma up close. She is an astute observer of nuanced human behavior and unspoken rules. You can hear in her internal monologue that she wants to connect with people but she is in too much of a vulnerable place, and too desperate, to be authentic with anyone. Lou’s pressure looms above her as an interpersonal mistake at any moment means losing her very tentative access to financial and social resources. Naturally, she self-medicates and lies a lot. Unfortunately, her lack of honesty leads the people around her to mistrust her and this creates it’s own set of problems. She also mistrusts herself around other people and that, I think, is the biggest tragedy in this story; the isolation of a brilliant mind and sensitive soul.
In terms of sex, this book shows one of the most complex views of teenage sexuality I've ever read in literature. It shows her desire and agency in sex and how disconnected she feels with a lack of emotional connection. Also, the narration explores the slippery slope of choice and coercion, not just in sex, but in so many other areas for minors without adults on their side. It's rare to read a story of commodified sex (for instance, when Lou tries to get a wealthy high school senior to marry her so she can get citizenship) without making the woman a victim of a tragic actions. This is a tragic story, but the sex is mostly through her own agency. The other brilliant part of this book is the way it highlights how Americans like to moralize chemical dependence (instead of seeing why someone might need it). Lou drinks gin to feel confident enough to be in a school musical or to sleep at night because, from what I can tell, she suffers from trauma-related insomnia. She also smokes cigarettes to calm herself down and to think of elaborate plots out of her situation. Her host family sees this as a sign that she is dangerous or acting out instead of self-medicating to tolerate the high-pressure situation she is in.
This book also touches gently on issues of foreignness. The difficulty of being a foreigner is not just about being able to speak the common language or having a legal residency visa, it’s also about a lack of social capital and all the positive and negative assumptions about your country which are prejudiced onto you. Lou doesn’t try to fight any of these presumptions, she only tries to work them out to her advantage.
Some reviewers have criticized the story’s ending because the book finishes without much hope for Lou's future. I would argue, how else could her situation end? So many circumstances and prejudices are against her. I think it is one of the most compassionate narratives I have ever read about teenagehood, the effects of poverty and trauma, and being female in America.
You might ask, what makes this story feminist? When the book first came out in 2005 many critics wrote a review of the story as a knock-off of J.D. Salinger's "Catcher In The Rye"; a coming of age story about a teenage boy and his disillusionment with the world. Whenever you see people desperate to interject the dominant narrative into a story (which happens far too often) you can be sure that the storyteller is trying to tell you something deeper. This is not a coming of age story. In a coming of age story, a character starts out as more of kid, and then realizes something about themselves or the world and grows up into someone else, with different conclusions. In this book, the main character, Lou, does not start out young and end up older. She starts out mentally sharp, hopeful, and desperate for resources. She ends up just as sharp and desperate, but with a less hopeful circumstance. The reviewers who only hear "The Catcher in the Rye" want this to be a book about what we’ve already heard before, about discovering the independent adolescent self, instead what it really is, a story about the kind of poverty that puts you into a corner where you can't trust anyone.
Lastly, though this is a tragic tale of a young woman, it's not the classical tragic narrative we often hear of young women. It’s not the sex or drugs that hurt her chances for a good life, it's the lack of human understanding around her, it's not having any adults who are truly on her side, it's a lack of imagination on behalf of the adults for not understanding the pressures of her situation. This story is about what we do to children (and foreigners) all the time; project onto them what we wish or fear they are instead of hearing their own authentic voices. This is the reason why I think American adults would benefit from reading this book with an open mind.