Sunday, 21 October 2012

Penguin no. 1499: Love Me Little
by Amanda Vail

Then there are girls like Amy and me. We are conflicted. We vacillate. We see ourselves as girls of intellect, and, I suspect, we sometimes think ourselves a little too good to be merely wives and mothers. I don't know how we ever got this idea, since all we hear is that a woman only reaches full fruition when she becomes a mother, and, presumably, a wife. Perhaps it is because our mothers give off a subtle sense of disappointment with their roles; we have become infected with their malaise. As Amy once said, 'It is a vicious cycle the generations play on each other.' A confused statement, perhaps, but trenchant nevertheless.

The major problem I had with this book was the author's deception, as it was clearly intentional, and its purpose must have been to lend a weight to the story which it didn't deserve. Amanda Vail is quoted on the back cover of this 1960s Penguin describing herself as a New Yorker, and the 17 year old daughter of a successful novelist; the protagonist she creates could be similarly described, except that Emily is two years younger. It is fairly clear that a contemporary reader was meant to infer that these are the semi-autobiographical reflections of a young bookish girl on the verge of adulthood, a girl who thought a lot about sex, and very little about romance. But this was not the case at all: Amanda Vail was the pseudonym of Warren Miller, and these are the imaginings of a 39 year old man.

Sue Fosburgh's swift elevation from mediocrity to social success has Emily and her friend Amy each perceiving their innocence to be a burden. The catalyst of Sue's assent was her own unverifiable story that she had lost her virginity during the previous school break, by (in her own words) giving herself to an Andover boy during Easter week.

She is regarded now with respect, the only one of her peers who knows what it is all about, having (putatively) crossed what they recognise as the threshold between girlhood and maturity. And now the spoils of such boldness are hers - she is editor of the school newspaper, president of the Debating Society, and captain of various sports teams, all despite a paucity of talent and an apparent lack of intelligence. It is a situation which Emily and Amy have difficulty accepting, and they decide the solution lies in emulation. By the time school returns after the summer break they intend that they too will have left girlhood behind.

This one shared goal defines their summer, and each day which slips by without its fulfilment seems to them a day wasted. And with their focus only on the act itself they each require nothing more than a willing partner, and it doesn't seem to matter to them who it is to be. They make a list of possibilities, partition it randomly, and then set to work on their lists, crossing off the name of any young man who fails to proceed with sufficient haste. But their respective plans seem destined to flounder due to the immaturity or the decency of the young men they target, and perhaps because it ultimately dawns on them that they may have overlooked something of importance in their determined pursuits of devirgination.

It seemed an absurd story, not because it was unlikely that two 15 year old girls would be so intent on having sex in 1957, but because they were content to set their sights so low that maleness and willingness were the only criteria any prospective partners needed to fulfil. Or perhaps the absurdness was intentional. It always seemed that if the genders were simply swapped the story would make far more sense, so perhaps he was trying to make some (fairly obvious) point about a difference between the sexes. Fortunately the book is very short, and there was some compensation for persisting in the amusing portrait of Emily's irascible and reluctantly successful novelist father.


  1. Is the deception of the author an important issue? Or is it justifiable and the author's prerogative? Such an issue has been debated on and off over the years and personally I don't think it matters, after all novels are all about creating a new world (a generalization) so why not the author too? It's an intriguing issue....

    1. I think it is important because our personal understanding of the world comes from such a small sample, being our own experiences and the things we observe, and one of the reasons for reading is to expand this understanding by being exposed to different perspectives and other viewpoints. But to do this we have to be able to read critically, to have some basis upon which to assess whether what we are reading offers some new insight or is simply noise.

      While there is clearly nothing wrong in an older man describing the world from the viewpoint of a 15 year old girl, when I read the book I want to be able to take that into account. It is inevitable that I would assess the believability of the character he creates against my own lived experience, because my prior expectation is not going to be that he knows more of such things than I do. But I am quite prepared to concede that a 17 year old girl would have a better understanding of the mind of a 15 year old than I do, and if something didn't make sense I would assume that I was the one out of touch, rather than the young author.

      So the question remains: what was the purpose of the deception? It was done very carefully, so it must have been done for a reason.

  2. Perhaps it was to try and avoid criticism along the lines of what would a 39 year old man know about the mind of a 15 year old girl? Seems a bit extreme though...



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