Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things

Carolyn Meckler's The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things

Virginia Shreves doesn’t fit in anywhere – not at her New York City private school, where she is a sophomore, and certainly not at home. Her parents are thin, dark-haired and beautiful, her older sister Anais and her adored older brother Byron (her mom thought that if she named her children after famous authors they’d all turn out fabulous) are thin, dark-haired and beautiful, everyone at school, it seems, is thin and beautiful…and Virgina? Not thin, not dark-haired, not beautiful. Also, not what her mother – a well-known adolescent psychologist – wants in a daughter, and not anything any boy would be interested in (except maybe Froggy Welsh the Fourth, but he’s only interested in groping her on Monday afternoons – he doesn’t actually pay any attention to her in front of actual people). To add insult to injury, her best (ok, her only friend) is gone for an entire year, banished across the country so that her dad can research a book on onions, of all things, so she has literally no one to spend any time with, at all.

Ginny’s family issues suddenly worsen dramatically when her brother is suspended from Columbia University for date rape. Ginny is shocked and appalled, and incredibly disillusioned, that her “perfect” older brother could have committed such an act. At this point, her mother’s focus on perfection – or at least, appearing perfect - comes sharply into focus. Ginny is clearly not perfect, and as she realizes how very much her mother is obsessed with perfection, she becomes more and more insecure regarding her mother’s love. Ginny’s weight is a constant family issue, and the shame and hurt Ginny feels begins to manifest itself in acts of physical self-abuse.

Despite the furor into which Byron’s crime throws the Shreves family (except Anais, who is in Africa with the Peace Corps, and who is kept in the dark about the whole mess by Ginny’s mother), the event serves as a catalyst for a great deal of Ginny’s growth. She sees how her parents – particularly her mother – coddle and protect Byron, ensuring that he doesn’t have to take full responsibility for his behavior. She realizes that the “perfection” of other members of her family is not genuine, and so, slowly, becomes a little more accepting of her own flaws. Also, she becomes less cowed by her family. Her first act of rebellion comes when she buys herself a ticket to Seattle to visit Shannon, her best friend, over Thanksgiving, despite the fact that her mother has denied her permission (since everyone had to be there to support poor Byron). While in Seattle, she gets her nose pierced…and by the end of the story, she’s wearing a boutique dress of purple velvet – not the “old lady” clothes from Saks her mother has always forced her to wear – and sporting purple hair to match.

Ginny’s transformation doesn’t come easy, and she has help – mostly in the form of support from Shannon, from her teacher Mrs. Crowley (because English teachers rock), and in her own growing realization that she is, perhaps, not the ugly duckling among swans she’d always thought herself to be. Her doctor gets her into a kickboxing class, she starts a literary magazine at school, and she mends fences with Froggy, who she’d brushed off when her family life start spiraling out of control. In the end, Ginny is not perfect, but she’s ok with that. She has friends, she’s busy and absorbed, and she’s come to terms with the fact that, just as she isn’t perfect, her family isn’t either. In a great, symbolic act, she finds her sister’s address in her mom’s office, and writes Anais an eight-page letter, telling her everything that’s happened – with Byron, with their parents, and with herself - since Byron’s suspension. She begins to build a strong relationship with her dad, and the reader knows that Ginny is going to be ok.

I liked this book, though, admittedly, not nearly as much as some of the others I’ve read recently. There are parts of it I really like. Ginny is a believable heroine, and her angst is very real. At times, you just want to take her home and hug her and tell her that everything’s going to be ok. Her self-loathing is painful to read, so painful that sometimes it's hard to keep reading – even the parts that are funny (and there is a lot of humor in this book) are less funny because of Ginny's very real anguish. Her development as a character and a person is fun to watch, though. Her teen rebellion – nose ring, purple hair – almost exactly mirrors the little rebellions I wanted to enact as a teenager (I’d still love to have purple hair), and since I didn’t have the guts to do it, I enjoyed living vicariously through Ginny. Ginny’s also very witty, and her wit comes through more and more as she becomes more confident.

However, there are weaknesses that make it difficult for me to really enjoy it as thoroughly as some others. For one, there is a lot that is unresolved. There are several references to Ginny hurting herself – bruising and cutting herself – that are never really addressed. No one knows about it, and eventually Ginny just stops doing it. Self-injuryis certainly a relevant issue to discuss, but the fact that there’s really no discussion about it makes me a little uncomfortable.
Structurally, the book feels a little unfinished because there really isn’t a clear climactic event. Probably, the point of highest action is when Byron is suspended for date rape, which happens in the first third of the book. There are certainly high points after that, but not any solid “event,” which makes the pacing of the book uneven. Really, so many hot button teen angst issues - weight issues, eating disorders, self-abuse, rape - are referenced in this, it would be hard to do them justice, and sometimes it seems that the author didn't even really try to, which weakens the impact of many of them.

However, the weaknesses of this book are almost totally redeemed in my eyes by one major point: at the end of the book, Ginny is satisfied, happy and even popular – and she’s still not skinny. What an amazing concept – a woman of any age can be not skinny – can be F.A.T., even - and can still find that she has something to offer the world, and that people might actually like her even though she's not a size six or under. Ginny’s lifestyle is healthier than at the beginning – she’s exercising and learning to control her emotional eating (it would be nice if she’d give me some lessons) – but she’s still overweight. I think that that’s a major message to send to readers, and it ties in well with the theme that it's ok to be imperfect that moves through the novel.

This novel, a 2004 Printz Award Honor book, would be a good choice for junior high readers. There is no sex in the novel, though there are a few make-out scenes, and one minor drinking scene. Female readers will be drawn to this much more than male, and any girls who have or have had struggles with their weight (eating disorders are also addressed in the novel) will definitely be able to relate to this novel. It’s uplifting message of self-acceptance will be powerful for any reader who can relate to Ginny’s struggles.

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