I love lyricism in books. I love poetic lines. I love prose. Authors who write like that become of my favorites. Laurie Halse Anderson’s words in SPEAK and WINTERGIRLS sing off the page to me. Francesca Lia Block’s WASTELAND and THE HANGED MAN are two of my favorite books and I feel like I could drown happily in the weight of that prose. I wish I could pull it off as consistently as they do.
Add Erica Lorraine Scheidt to that list.
(Side note: it means nothing that this is the first book I’ve “reviewed”/reflected upon and don’t have a picture of it with a cat. It just never made it out of my car, actually. I read it during lunch break at work.)
USES FOR BOYS is a short, lyrical YA novel about a girl named Anna who is a statistic. She is. It’s sad, but she is. Her dad left early in her life and Anna never met him. Her mother’s clingy to Anna when she’s a small child and puts a great deal of pressure on Anna, telling her now that she has her, “I have everything.” Her mother marries, divorces, marries, divorces, and goes through a string of lovers. Her mother is also a statistic. Here’s the cycle of abuse, isn’t it? Locked in pages with gorgeous prose.
Anna’s twelve when a boy first fondles her on the bus and uses her hand to get himself off in his pants.
She starts having sex soon afterwards. She is raped not long after that. She drops out at 16 and moves in with her boyfriend and gets a job at a cafe. She gets pregnant. She has an abortion.
Did you think this was going to be a simple love story? It’s not.
Anna meets a girl named Toy just after she gets home from the resort where Anna’s friend’s brother rapes her. She wants to tell Toy the real story, but instead she tells her the story she’s told herself (“He wanted to kiss me.”). And from there, the stories evolve between Toy and Anna. Toy falls in love easily and hard. Her boys are gentle and romantic. They plan out when they have sex (“make love”). Her boys tell her they love her. Anna’s boys fuck her, really. Anna’s boys exist so that she feels like she’s real and needed and “everything” in the world. Anna uses sex to ground herself in reality.
But stories and the way we carry multiple truths is central to USES FOR BOYS. Anna’s mother tells her stories and Anna labels those times the “tell me again times”. Toy carries secrets and stories. All of the characters do. When Anna meets Sam, a boy who doesn’t immediately shove his hands down her pants, a boy who hasn’t had sex before, a boy who doesn’t use girls as anything more than the space between their legs, then the truths she’s carried and the story she’s established in her head is challenged.
In more ways than one, USES FOR BOYS reminds me of Francesca Lia Block’s stories in that at points, the story is less about the main character and narrator than it is about everyone else. Anna in USES FOR BOYS functions as our telescope into her very narrow world in which we examine everyone else in Anna’s life (her mom, Toy, her string boyfriends, Sam, and Sam’s family), and the ways in which the truths and judgments we bring to those characters must shift and change with Anna’s realizations. Anna’s an incredibly quiet character and occasionally passive. Things happen to Anna. The only time Anna is an active character (for most of the book, the end excluded after Anna’s epiphany) is when she’s making decisions about where she’s going to live–decisions in which her body is not a part of the decision making process. Decisions in which she is the only human character. We learn more about other people through Anna than we would if this book was solely about Anna’s stories and Anna’s truths.
This isn’t a story for the light of heart. It’s a story about a girl who lets her body be used, who believes her worth to boys is between her legs, and a girl who has to fight back against everything the world’s taught her. She feels old beyond her years by the time she’s sixteen and it’s painful at points to read things said to her. It’s never easy to read a rape scene, but it’s not any easier to read the other sex scenes. It’s a gritty book. It’s lyrical and beautiful, but it hurts.
I HIGHLY recommend the book. I think that people (parents/teachers) may be wary of the sex in the book (and the mentions of drug use) but it’s clear the entire time that even though Anna has sex to feel better, it doesn’t work, and the sex is never described as fun or pleasant. Nor is the abortion described as a pleasant procedure. There’s nothing condoning of having lots of casual sex as a young teen. It’s not straight condemnation (because how could Scheidt? How could we as readers? This is Anna’s coping mechanism. What else was she given? She was failed by so many. How can we condemn her for something she was essentially taught to use?) but it isn’t condoning of Anna’s behavior. You’re not supposed to approve. Anna doesn’t approve of it. She just doesn’t know another way until she meets Sam and his family.
So go pick this up. And keep an open mind. And think about the debates going on currently in the United States about rape, legitimate rape, women’s rights, abortions, and the language used about a girl’s worth in this country. And think about Anna.
(PS. This is how an “issue book” is beautifully done without ever preaching and where the main character leads herself to her epiphany. It’s gorgeous and perfect and I want to cuddle the book forever.)
(PPS: I LOVE THIS COVER SO MUCH. It’s actually why I picked up the book.)