Sunday, June 22, 2008

Worst. Parenting. Ever.

I'd rather be reading Nineteen Minutes right now, but I had to come post here before I got any further and my having figured out the ending became less impressive. I won't spoil it by telling you my guess, but rest assured, I have a strong suspicion of what the big Jodi Picoult twist at the end will be.

One of the "always the same" things about her books that drives me insane is the fact that one of the main characters is always keeping a secret, for no discernible reason. Often it's someone who's on trial, and not only do they choose not to explain that they're not guilty or had a good reason for doing things, no one ever even asks them. I'll spoil Vanishing Acts (only a tiny little bit) by saying that the father who ran off with his young daughter was in jail for WEEKS before he mentioned to anyone that the mother he took her from was dangerously drunk a lot of the time. No one asked him, "why'd you do that," even the people who are sitting down, talking to him, wondering that. He doesn't tell his lawyer, in spite of the fact that he's sitting in jail and on trial. It's infuriating to me.

But when I think about this book in the context of teenage readers, it makes a certain amount of sense. It's part of the barrier that Peter has put up, part of his isolation--which is total. He's been so thoroughly unsuccessful at connecting with anyone in his life, it's not nearly as surprising that he's stopped trying, even though it could make all the difference in his life. The idea of being alone and different in this book is carried through perfectly, to a painful degree. It hurt me to read this. Every incident from Peter's life just made my heart sink into my stomach. His brother calling him nasty names behind his back. His mom embarrassing him in front of the soccer team without even realizing it. It's such a perfectly realized portrait of what it's like to be that kid, whom nobody likes--my tastes of it in life have been small, but they were there, and it's hard to read.

Then there's Josie's solitude. She's got the popular crowd of friends, but she doesn't really connect with anyone, including her mom. She has almost no tools for dealing with what she's really thinking, because all her efforts have gone into making sure things don't look bad from the outside--welcome to the life of a judge, of a popular girl. Her loneliness and confusion are also perfectly captured (though I'm pretty sure she's also keeping The Secret That I Suspect But Won't Spoil).

But the most painful part of this book, in my opinion, is the parenting. I can't claim to be an awesome parent (or any kind of parent yet), or that I wouldn't make mistakes, but when Lacy tells her son near the beginning that if he lets the other kids tease him again, she won't let him play with his only friend, this seems to be, well, HORRIBLE to me. There is a difference between helping your kid be strong and making him responsible for his being weak. When she shows up on the soccer field and admonishes the coach in front of the other kids--come on! My mom went in to complain to my math teacher that she wasn't challenging me, but she did it after school, and I wasn't embarrassed in front of my peers. And I don't care how important it is to be a judge, it amazes me that Alex never once figured out that you can't just ask a teenager if they want more of your attention, or time--you just have to give it to them--maybe even force them to take it.

And the hardest part about the parenting is that they're all trying. They all love their children and are trying hard. They just don't seem to see what their kids need, either as teenagers, or just as people who are different than they are. While it's heartbreaking, there's also something deeply true about it, and something that I think a lot of teenagers, feeling like their parents don't understand them, would recognize.

This book blows right through all of the developmental assets. We've got all kinds of support missing from Peter's life--family, school, neighborhood. Safety is missing, too. Boundaries and expectations are messed up--none of the adults at school, at home, or in the world sets boundaries on any of the teens--Josie's mom giving her and Matt run of the house, teachers ignoring the abuse Peter takes. Alex models almost no positive values for Josie, except responsibility. And let's not discuss Peter's identity and lack of social competencies. The novel is like a manual on what can happen to someone who doesn't get the emotional nourishment they need in life. It's hard to read, but I can't deny that it's compelling, and emotional, and that I'm really enjoying it.


Linda Braun said...

It always cracks me up that Picoult puts the same sort of twist at the end of every book, yet I read until the end and am often surprised. (Even though I knew it was coming.)

Whenever I read a Picoult book I am struck by how the outside is never the same as the inside. We see teens and parents who from the outside look like they are all doing well. The families in Picoult's books - 19 minutes included - are nice families. See them at the ice cream stand and that's what someone might say.

But, we never really know what goes on inside the houses of those nice families and that's the appeal of these books to many teens and adults. Everything isn't as it seems. People are always putting on facades. Teens relate to that because that's what they are doing, naturally not for a particular purpose.

I'd like to know if the twist was what you expected. And, BTW, a student last semester gave me Vanishing Acts on CD. I couldn't get through it because I found it so annoying what was said and wasn't said.

LibraryHungry said...

I think the interesting thing is that it's not like there are a lot of big secrets to reveal behind those closed doors--it's not about scandal and secret abuse (with, of course, one exception). It's quiet alienation.

The twist is, in fact, what I had guessed. I don't think I would have, necessarily, if I didn't know the author's patterns--I knew there'd be a twist, and that any hint of secret-keeping would pan out into a secret. It's at the point where, if she wrote a book that did not have these patterns, I would likely find myself confused and disappointed.