Friday, May 21, 2010

Nothing Like You by Lauren Strasnick

"Holly".  The way he kept saying my name over and over made me feel so totally small.  "You're not my girlfriend."  You're not my girlfriend.  You're not my girlfriend.  It echoed in my ear.  I hate you, I thought as he dragged me across the taupe-colored field to the bleachers.  We ducked underneath.  "Do we need to set some ground rules?...I like you, Holly, I do.  But I'm not going to do all this girlfriend-boyfriend bullshit with you, okay?  I already have one relationship I have to manage...What we have should be easy."
I remember a few years ago reading an article in one of our city newspapers about how the "friends with benefits" relationship trend is aging down to high schoolers and even middle schoolers, who apparently now don't bother with crushes,  courting, or building relationships. According to this article, arranging with an  acquaintance in one's social circle to meet for sex, rather than dating and all it entails, is now an accepted norm for some teens.  This struck me as kind of bizarre and creepy at the time, not to mention prematurely jaded.  After all, loving emotional bonds are one of the chief pleasures of life.  And  learning how to form and maintain romantic connections is widely considered to be one of the important developmental tasks of adolescence and early adulthood.  Who wants to reach adulthood knowing nothing about romance?

Nothing Like You confirms my initial impression.  This kind of relationship is indeed bizarre and creepy.  Especially if you're in denial about being in emotional crisis, and your partner is a borderline sociopath.

The book opens with Holly, our protagonist, losing her virginity to Paul in the back seat of his stale, smelly car. She wonders " if this feels any different when you love the person or when you do it lying down on a bed.".  Paul already has a girlfriend, Saskia, who is lovely and popular, and Holly knows that what she is doing with Paul isn't going to change that.  But she is emotionally numb after losing her mother to cancer,  and Paul's physicality somehow makes her feel less frozen.

Paul begins sneaking into Holly's bedroom several nights a week, while making the boundaries of their relationship very clear.  He doesn't want to talk to, touch, or acknowledge Holly at school, or anywhere they might be seen together.  No one is to know about them, especially not Saskia.  It becomes more and more of a mystery to me why Holly stays with him,  really, because he just gets colder and nastier as the story goes on.  Meanwhile, Saskia and Holly wind up getting to know each other after being partnered for a school project, and Holly's best friend Nils, seeing how troubled Holly is, tries unsuccessfully to reach out to her.

Holly makes some pretty poor decisions in this book, and although you sense that they're really all about her grief at her mother's death, that grief is never directly addressed.  There's a dingy sense of worthlessness that seems to follow her around like a cloud, and when she is outed as Paul's sexual partner and comes into school to find the word "whore" written on her locker and no one speaking to her, it simply serves to bring her outer world into correspondence with her depressing inner world.

Strasnick has written a serious book about difficult situations and complicated feelings.  She's done a good job, although sometimes I did want to give Holly a good whack upside the head.  All that self-destructive behavior gets a bit frustrating, and her continued "I don't know why I did that" attitude doesn't help.  The ending is bittersweet but hints at the beginnings of some emotional resilience and a chance for a fresh beginning. 

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