I was a big fan of Norma Klein when I was a teenager. I felt like her stories were quite unlike any author I read, with the possible exception of Judy Blume. Her matter-of-fact, explicit (to me, at least in my memory) sex scenes and discussions made her books tantalizingly mature. On top of that, they had a lot of drama–things like your boyfriend’s dad getting together with your mom. Something else I found really intriguing about her novels was how many of them were from a boy’s point of view. Combine that with the aforementioned sex and you can see why these books were so appealing to a teenage girl! Not only did I get a good story that was usually mostly about a romance and sexual relationship, but it also gave me a peek into a boy’s view of those things.
I had a hard time choosing which of Klein’s wonderful books to reread, but I’ve chosen That’s My Baby, copyright 1988. I honestly don’t remember too many details about this one-it seems like all of Klein’s books have run together in my memory! I do know this one is about a teenage boy who begins a relationship with a slightly older woman-the big catch here is that she’s married. In my memory there was nothing sleazy or inappropriate about their age difference, though the adultery was shocking to me. Let’s see how it holds up in 2013!
I’ve just reread it and can’t believe I left out in my pre-reading description what all came back to me as such a hallmark of Klein’s novels–just how smart everyone is in them. Not only are her characters always very cerebral and applying to Reed College and Ivy League schools, but her writing itself is unapologetically intellectual. References to Harold Pinter and Polonius are matter-of-factly made with no explanation, and words like “incousiantly” are thrown around. The teen characters are Paul, his best friend Wolf, and his former close friend, Sonya. All three attend a high school for the academically gifted.
Paul’s gift is writing and he yearns to be a playwright. Because their school is so advanced, they hardly ever have classes and are instead able to spend their time working or pursuing their talents. Paul lives in an apartment building with dad, except his dad usually isn’t there-he mostly spends the days and nights with his girlfriend. Paul’s mother is remarried and has her own bustling suburban life. So at 18 Paul is basically living on his own, a situation which no one finds unusual or sad. He’s a character who does see himself as an intellectual and spends a lot of time analyzing those around him, as well as his own reactions to life and love. He takes a dog walking job for a woman in the building and it’s basically love at first sight for him.
Zoe is a 22-year-old married to a 34-year-old. From my point of view, she seems incredibly young to be married, and while Paul and Zoe do talk about the fact that she married young, mostly they talk about how old her husband is. (Paul’s parents are also just in their mid-thirties as they were teenage parents.) Paul and Zoe leap into an affair that lasts for many months and involves daily sex. The relationship ends when Zoe becomes pregnant and realizes she needs to move on with her adult life. By the time the novel ends, Paul is 20 and has an off-Broadway play produced, which just happens to be about his and Zoe’s relationship.
It’s definitely a different type of teen romance and that’s what had always appealed to me about Klein’s books. They were in love and having sex, but there was not a lot of dithering over whether or not they should have sex– it was just a fact of an adult relationship. Paul is not an especially likable character and a lot of the book is questioning his role in the relationships and whether or not he acts honorably. I’m realizing, reading this as an adult, that as a teenager in New Jersey I completely based my beliefs about what living in Manhattan was like on these books. Wasn’t every NYC teen basically living on his own, visiting bars, having mature sexual relationships, and only going to school sometimes? Although the book is twenty-five years old I didn’t find a lot of dated things that stood out. Probably the biggest “what?” moments were how often Paul mentioned drinking with his parents, at restaurants, or at a bar with his friends.
I’d say Norma Klein definitely stands up as a good writer, and while I’d forgotten just how different the tone of her books are from other YA books, I think she’s definitely still worth reading. In particular I found myself thinking about books for “new adults.” Paul and Zoe are ages 18 and 22, dealing with independence, and struggling with what a mature relationship looks like. That’s My Baby seems to fit right into this new category (though the paperback edition of it has a rather juvenile cover.) The New Adult genre has been mentioned several times here on The Hub, including this comprehensive post.
The immediate connection I made to a more contemporary author is John Green. Just like Klein, he writes about incredibly intelligent kids and hits on the more mature end of the spectrum of YA lit. His novel An Abundance of Katherines (2007 Printz Honor) is a good recommendation for readers who like their characters extra intelligent. Another Printz Honor book from 2009 that’s a little more “fun” than Klein, but still smart, is E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. And finally, if the aspect of That’s My Baby that most appeals to you is the secret, wrongness of their relationship, be sure to check out the 2012 PPYA list-Forbidden Romance. It’s got plenty of titles about romances that are “oh so wrong, but oh so right.” I think Paul would approve.
-Sarah Debraski, currently reading The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
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