Friday, November 7, 2008

Deenie and Meet the Austins

I was inspired by the Fine Lines feature on Jezebel to revisit as some of my favorite books from my youth.

I went to the library and checked out Deenie, by Judy Blume. I remember reading this book for the first time when I was in third grade. I’m not sure if I’ve read it since then. I think I was too young to read it when I was in third grade, but I read it because Amanda Swann told me about it. For some reason, although I can’t remember why, I looked up to Amanda Swann, and I thought if she was reading it I should be reading it too. I remember very distinctly that she told me about the main character, Deenie, and how pretty she was and how was gonna be a model, and after her braces were off, she was gonna go out with Matt Kinsey. Matt Kinsey was this kid in our class who everyone liked, so I wasn’t surprised that Deenie would want to go out with him, but occurs to me now that it’s weird to think a fictional character would want to go out with a real kid in our class. When I actually read the book, I discovered that Deenie didn’t have braces on her teeth like I thought, she had a brace on her back or on her whole body, I actually didn’t really understand what the brace was all about. I did that a lot, as a kid, I read books that I wasn’t really old enough to understand and then wandered around with a lot of misconceptions.

I also checked out Meet the Austins by Madeline L'Engle. I don’t remember how long ago it was when I first read it, but it’s certainly been a long time, because I barely remembered it. At first I wasn't even sure if I'd ever ready it. Its the first book in a series about the Austin family. I know that at one timeI owned some of the books in the series--The Young Unicorns and a A Ring Endless Light—and read them several times. But I don’t think I ever owned Meet the Austins, so it’s probably been two decades since I read it. I don’t remember what I thought of the book when I first read it, but I was surprised upon this recent reading by how much I’d disliked the narrator. Or maybe it’s more appropriate to say that I disliked the narration, not the narrator. I’m sure the narrator herself would’ve been a fine person if I met her, but the way she narrated the story seemed really pretentious to me and I don’t think it was supposed to be. I feel like we’re supposed to like Vickiy Austen, but then she says things like Uncle Douglas is “an artist and lives in New York, and we all love him tremendously.” It’s in the first paragraph of the book and I’m already annoyed---by the word tremendously. It just sounds affected. I feel like the whole book seems to be straining to prove how special and wonderful the Austins are—particularly Vicky. Instead of letting us draw our own conclusions about Vicky, the other characters are used as mouthpieces to tell us what to think. For example, Vicky asks her Uncle Douglas why she’s having such trouble showing her Aunt Elena how sorry she is about her about the death of her Aunt Elena's husband. (Sorry this is confusing--Aunt Elena was married to Uncle Hal and Uncle Douglas actually not an Uncle, he's just a family friend.) But anyway:

“Uncle Douglas,” I said, “why is it that John can show Aunt Elena how sorry he is about Uncle Hal and I can’t, and I’m so terribly, terribly sorry?”
Uncle Douglas put his arm around me and his beard rubbed gently against my cheek. “Aunt Elena knows you’re sorry, dear.”
“But why does John know what to say, and how to say it, and all I can do is act stupid, as though it doesn’t matter?”
“Just because it matters too much. Have you ever heard of empathy?”
I shook my head.
“John can show Aunt Elena how sorry he is because he has a scientific mind and he can see what has happened from the outside. All good scientists have to know how to be observers. He can be deeply upset about Uncle Hal and deeply sorry for Aunt Elena, but he can be objective about it. You can’t.”
“Because you have an artistic temperament, Vicki, and I’ve never seen you be objective about anything yet. When you think about Aunt Elena and how she must be feeling right now, it is for the moment as though you were Aunt Elena; you go right inside her suffering, and it becomes your suffering too. That’s empathy, it’s something all artists are afflicted with.”
“Are you?”

“Sure. But I’m older than you are and I can cope with it better.”

In this passage I am somehow simultaneously annoyed with Vicky, John, Uncle Douglas and the author at the same time. Is it just me?

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