Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Memoirs of a Teen Age Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin

If Naomi had chosen heads, none of it would have happened. So begins this latest YA book I read. Once again, we have a 16 year old trying to figure out who she is in the context of the boys/men in her life. This hoary and frankly regressive format is made more tolerable by the use of amnesia. Naomi has hit her head on the stone staircase at school, and wakes up unable to remember anything about the last four years--her entire middle school and high school career.

She is found at the bottom of the stairs by James Larkin--a sulky James Dean type boy, who rides with her to the hospital. She quickly is reintroduced to the eccentric Will--who claims he is her best friend--and Ace, her tennis playing jock boyfriend. She also has to confront her parents' divorce, her mother's remarriage and four year old half sister, a new house, and who she has become over the last four years.

There is an interesting premise that hovers tantalizingly over the first half of the book--does a girl given a clean slate make herself anew, or does she fit herself back into the person she used to be? Naomi does a little of both--she gives herself some time to figure out what she saw in Ace, before deciding that whatever it was, he's not enough for her now. She finds herself drawn to the mysterious James, who nobody seems to like, and who runs hot and cold unpredictably. She settles into Will's proffered friendship, both because she genuinely likes him, and because he can tell her about who she used to be.

The amnesia causes some practical difficulties for her, which are handled deftly and with a light touch. She can't remember how to drive, but hates being dependent on her father to take her places. She remembers math and science, but not language, and she struggles to keep up with her classes while working on the larger problem of who she is and where she fits in.

It won't be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen Sixteen Candles that Naomi's fascination with James breaks Will's heart--because Will has been in love with her forever. What Zevin does with this triangle is slightly different from the usual--Naomi doesn't figure out that Will loves her, and she develops a relationship with the troubling James. However, she's with him long enough to learn that he isn't really right for her either. She eventually recovers her memory, realizes what Will means to her, but that relationship is no longer viable due to the choices she has made since the accident.

Will is angry with her because she has quit the yearbook, which the two of them were co-chairing, first to appear in a play, and then to be with James. Will gets another girlfriend, who is also angry at Naomi for how she has treated Will. By the end, however, the two of them have been through enough that they are able to (slowly, cautiously) reapproach each other.

The emotional territory Naomi moves through in her relationships with Ace, James and Will are authentic and well handled. Zevin has overloaded the book, I think, with more plot than she can handle. Naomi was adopted by her parents as a baby from Russia, which creates another identity crisis that is more or less just thrown in briefly, then dropped. Similarly, Naomi finds a food diary in her bedroom, indicating an incipient anorexia with it's obsessive focus on minimal calories. She (wisely) throws it out, calling it insane--and the issue also disappears. We later learn that Naomi was an outstanding tennis player--an athleticism with is at odds with the food diary. Again--more plot than Zevin could handle.

The whole issue of her parents' divorce is also more weight than the book can handle. The pre-accident Naomi has refused to speak to her mother, because her mother's infidelity ended the marriage. The two never quite make up, but neither does Naomi really have a believable emotional arc over this new disruption in her life. Her father, too, is about to remarry--a decision that pre-accident Naomi apparently was a complete bitch about, but post-accident Naomi accepts with slightly more grace--but not entirely believably.

Finally, the exquisitely depressed James (as Will derides) turns out to have serious and recurrent depression, a failed suicide attempt in his past, and more demons than he can handle. He ends up in California, and Naomi lies to her father and goes to meet him there. James is sinking rapidly, and ends up abandoning her for hours on a beach where she has no way to get in touch with anyone. James' problems are too large for a girlfriend to shoulder or solve, and this harebrained trip to California is not really consistent with the girl we are discovering. In fact, the post-accident Naomi seems to have messed up her life as thoroughly as pre-accident Naomi did, just in new and excitingly different ways.

Zevin does a nice job with the amnesia, so it's not merely a gimmick, but does lend some emotional crediblity to Naomi's attempts to find her balance. It's just sad that neither Naomi seems to have had any real female friends, or really any non-romantic relationships with boys either. Still, it's sensitively written and the emotional path she takes to find her way to Will feels authentic. A few less disasters would have kept the book better balanced is all.

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