Lately it seems when young (under 40) writers sit down to produce something creative they inevitably spit out a thesis on the 1980s — the era of their awakening. Whether these writers remember the decade with fondness, regret or a little of both, they have a compulsion to share the experience with the rest of the world.
And so we have Grosse Pointe Girl, Sarah Grace McCandless’ debut novel about — you guessed it — the coming-of-age of a suburban Detroit girl in the 1980s.
The novel follows Emma Harris beginning with her move to the tony Grosse Pointe burbs and on through her parents’ divorce, the loss of her virginity, her high school graduation and, finally, a reunion.
At the novel’s opening, Emma is a sixth-grader. As she grows up, she learns numerous social lessons, including how to dress (copy your friends), eat (very little) and smoke (a lot). A few friends are gained and lost and crushes on boys change with the wind.
Essentially the novel is about overprivileged teens parented by some rather oblivious people, and how every kid in Grosse Pointe apparently begins smoking at age 12. References to the popular culture of the day abound, with jelly shoes, the band Wham!, Guess? jeans and permed hair.
Grosse Pointe Girl also includes illustrations, ably done by Christine Norrie. Unfortunately, the drawings are wasted here and only add to the feeling that McCandless doesn’t always know who she wants her audience to be: adults or pre-teens. The ’80s references and adult material seem geared for adults, but often the writing is too simple and clichéd, such as “I quickly learned the lay of the land,” and her overuse of the phrase “of course,” as in “the Lions losing per usual of course.”
The novel isn’t without merit, however. Unlike prior, more dramatic efforts about suburban teen angst (see Michigan natives and critically acclaimed authors explore the theme, such as Judith Guest in Ordinary People and Pulitzer Prize-winning, Grosse Pointe native Jeffrey Eugenides in The Virgin Suicides) this novel focuses on the more petty existence of the suburban teen, with details such as the envy girls have for those with nicer hair and more expensive shoes and Emma’s reaction to the loss of her virginity — asking the boy not to tell anyone about it.
These details set the novel apart from darker examinations of suburban childhood. The divorce of Emma’s parents and the suicide of a peer are woven to fit with what seems to be McCandless’ theme: When it comes down to it, maturity is a rather elusive thing for teenagers, and they spend a lot of time suffering insignificant details even in the face of major life changes. In places like Grosse Pointe, social status is key, and if that means conformity, so be it.
With so many books, movies and television shows featuring too-wise juveniles extolling the virtues of individuality, it’s refreshing to know that someone remembers that those kinds of kids are rare.
McCandless also shows the promise of a bright writer. In the chapter “Lochmoor Moms,” she captures the socialite mothers so prevalent in Grosse Pointe, and, I imagine, in similar old-money suburbs. Emma, while working at a country club, is adopted by these women one evening as they drink, smoke and show her how to do the electric slide.
“The Lochmoor moms are teaching me how to be like them; how to be like each other, move in the exact same way and create a consistent pattern … I am just another Lochmoor mom in training, standing around and waiting for something better to happen.”
What McCandless should have done with material like this is produce a witty short story. Even if we can forgive the sometimes graceless writing and 1980s setting, we are still left with just another book about the life of the suburban teen. In large part, it seems the novel is therapy for McCandless more than an effort to reveal something new.
A college writing professor once said that only after one purges themselves of their life story can they move forward with original writing. With “Grosse Pointe Girl,” McCandless is drowning in nostalgia, but she exhibits enough literary talent that we can look forward to her next effort — so long as it’s free of her adolescent demons.
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