About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

#86: The Gap Year

The Gap Year, by Sarah Bird (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)

"From the widely-praised author of The Yokota Officers Club and The Flamenco Academy, a novel as hilarious as it is heartbreaking about a single mom and her seventeen-year-old daughter learning how to let go in that precious moment before college empties the nest.

"In The Gap Year, told with perfect pitch from both points of view, we meet Cam Lightsey, lactation consultant extraordinaire, a divorcee still secretly carrying a torch for the ex who dumped her, a suburban misfit who's given up her rebel dreams so her only child can get a good education.

"We also learn the secrets of Aubrey Lightsey, tired of being the dutiful, grade-grubbing band geek, ready to explode from wanting her 'real' life to begin, trying to figure out love with boys weaned on Internet porn.

"When Aubrey meets Tyler Moldenhauer, football idol-sex god with a dangerous past, the fuse is lit. Late bloomer Aubrey metastasizes into Cam's worst silent, sullen teen nightmare, a girl with zero interest in college. Worse, on the sly Aubrey's in touch with her father, who left when she was two to join a celebrity-ridden nutball cult.

"As the novel unfolds -- with humor, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and penetrating insights about love in the twenty-first century -- the dreams of daughter, mother, and father chart an inevitable, but perhaps not fatal, collision ... "

Opening Line:
"I once believed that I was physiologically incapable of being unhappy while submerged in water."

My Take:
This one was pretty darned good. As the jacket indicates, the story alternates between Cam's and Aubrey's perspectives, but also between different times; Cam's story begins in August 2010, on the eve of Aubrey's scheduled departure for far-away Peninsula College, while Aubrey's starts a year earlier, on the cusp of her senior year when heat exhaustion at band practice leads her to puke on local football star Tyler Moldenhauer.

Both characters are very well-rendered, with a realistic dose of faults. On one hand, Aubrey's so dazzled by the initial scraps of attention Tyler offers that she thinks little about what she herself wants, both in terms of friendships/ Relationships and life in general. On the other, she's seventeen, so this is probably understandable thanks to youth and hormones. It's the little touches here that make the story: Aubrey's being surprised by Tyler's "country teeth" (anyone else in Parkhaven would've had that remedied by orthodontia years ago) and touched by his calling an interviewer for the in-school TV show "son" even though they're presumably only 2 or 3 years apart.

Cam, on the other hand, is both sympathetic and infuriating, in that half-nervous, too-close-for-comfort way. She's always prided herself on the close, open relationship she has with Aubrey -- at least, till a year ago -- but now finds herself agonizing regretfully over all the things they haven't done, from reading The Secret Garden together to staying in the hipper but educationally dodgier Sycamore Heights instead of moving to well-off, uber-conformist Parkhaven where neither of them really fits in. I'm with her here, but on the other hand, her contempt for Tyler is way excessive and off-putting. She can't seem to mention or even think of him without affixing "redneck" or "hillbilly" before his name, and appears to have spent the whole summer disparaging a job that seems pretty darned enterprising for a barely-literate high school grad; Tyler and Aubrey have been raking in the bucks operating a mobile food service van, which Cam can't stop calling a "roach coach."

Put the two together, add in Aubrey's unexpected Facebook friendship and regular online chats with her father, Martin ... and it's clear that something, somewhere is eventually gonna blow. When her part of the story opens, Cam's spent the whole summer laying in enough towels, sheets, and other dorm supplies for a whole floor of freshmen, but Aubrey won't even say two words about her college plans. Cam nags incessantly about how the two of them need to go to the bank together to withdraw her first year's tuition from her trust, but Aubrey constantly insists she's too busy with customers. Did I mention that Cam still carries a torch for Martin, even though he left her for the Next! cult and cut off all contact 16 years ago? Or that her own best friend, bad-a$$, rebel-without-a-cause Dori, serves as both comfort and warning (since Twyla, her own daughter and Aubrey's former best friend, ran off to live with her dad a year ago and hasn't been in touch since)?

A balanced, highly readable novel.

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