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Book Review: New to Me–The Cat Ate My Gymsuit

2006 reissue cover

The first novel from the beloved late author Paula Danziger, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit is a window on early 1970s attitudes.  Feminism, educational theory, and family dynamics are explored through Marcy Lewis and her worries.

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit
Paula Danziger
Published 1974

Marcy feels like an outsider.  She’s overweight, quiet, hates changing for gym and hearing her father’s insults.  But most of all, she’s unhappy that Ms. Finney, her wonderful English teacher, has been fired.  Ms. Finney had unusual methods, ones that the administration didn’t really like.  She brought out the best in her students, helping students like Marcy blossom.  The principal couldn’t fire her for anything other than Ms. Finney didn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance.  This act inspires Marcy and her fellow students to fight back.  And in fighting for her teacher, Marcy learns how to stand up to her father, even inspiring her mother to do the same.

1974 hardcover

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect of The Cat Ate My Gymsuit is Marcy’s family.  Marcy, her little brother Stuart, and their mother are all cowed by the temper of Mr. Lewis.  He yells often and belittles his children to the point of verbal abuse.  Mrs. Lewis is weak and enabling, listening to Marcy’s complaints about being a blimp yet giving her ice cream to soothe the sting of paternal insults.  It’s painful for the reader to see Marcy and the rest of her family suffer such abuse.  It’s also odd and jarring to see so few signs that Marcy’s family is that unusual.  Maybe it’s because people didn’t talk about their problems with others, or that a blind eye was turned towards abuse.  Modern readers, though, will probably resent Mr. Lewis greatly–but they will also cheer on Marcy and her mother as they resist feeling inferior.

Marcy’s blossoming into a young woman of strength and conviction is sparked by Ms. Finney.  A young teacher with new ideas, Ms. Finney inspires her students to learn and explore.  Yet it’s not just pedagogy or educational techniques that allows such results.  It’s because Ms. Finney treats her students as equals, partners in educational pursuits.  While such theories have become more accepted since the 1970s, they must have been a shock to other, experienced teachers and administrators.  In the case of Marcy’s school, the powers that be are unable to accept Ms. Finney’s methods, even though they get results.

Ms. Finney achieves a pyrrhic victory, being reinstated but choosing to resign in order to prevent more distractions.  Yet she’s inspired many students like Marcy.  And the changes in Marcy change other people, too.  Mrs. Lewis starts to stand up to her husband and even chooses to begin night classes.  For Marcy, Ms. Finney isn’t just a teacher.  She’s the role model that Marcy needed.  At a time when feminism was definitely a dirty word to many people, Marcy learns that just because she’s female doesn’t mean she deserves belittlement.

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit might be a bit dated now–do teens even know what gymsuits are?  The writing style is a bit stilted as well, not feeling very natural.  Yet this novel would still still speak to many readers: anyone who’s felt embarrassed or awkward or ignored.  Since so many teens know the pain of those feelings from first-hand experience, there are still readers for The Cat Ate My Gymsuit.
Melissa Rabey–currently reading The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge
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Melissa Rabey

One Comment

  1. I LOVED this book as a tween. I read it over and over again.

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