We all long for “another life altogether” at some point. Thirteen-year-old Jesse Bennett has more reason than most to want to escape into another life. She has lived all her life with her mother’s eccentric behavior, which has just culminated in a suicide attempt and hospitalization. Even though she knows that she will be found out eventually, Jesse tells her classmates that her mother is away on a world cruise that she won in a contest. To bolster her story, she writes detailed letters which are supposedly from her mother (after having researched each destination) and reads them aloud in home room. Of course, in a small town news travels fast and Jesse’s ploy is revealed–and ridiculed. Soon after her mother returns from the mental hospital, her father moves them to an even smaller town in the hopes that they can all get a fresh start.
Jesse is pinning all her hopes on this opportunity to start over. She “providentially” makes friends with a girl who is popular at her new school and she resolves to do everything she can to keep her position in the “in” crowd. At the same time she develops a crush on an older girl and she escapes again into writing letters that she never sends, this time to the object of her affections about their “life together.”
Meanwhile, at home, Jesse worries constantly about her mother, fearing that she will try to kill herself again. She has to take over a lot of the familial responsibilities while her father alternates between denial and hare-brained schemes to help his wife to “snap out of it.” Further complicating her family life is the boyfriend of her aunt who secretly torments her and her jail-bird uncle who comes to live with them after his release from prison.
As her mother falls more deeply into her mental illness and her father more obsessed with making things right, Jesse finds herself fantasizing even more about her “other life” as well as questioning the behavior of her supposed friends in the “in” crowd. When she meets an engaging boy whom she immediately feels a connection to, she’s dismayed to discover that he is ostracized by the popular kids, who rag him about being a “poofter.” When the ostracism turns to violence, Jesse must make a choice.
On the surface this book is about a young girl’s attempt to deal with her mother’s mental illness and her own questions about her sexuality. But beneath the surface it is about so much more. First of all, it is a finely nuanced portrait of a young teen who is trying to find a way to balance her need for acceptance with her desire to be herself. She is beginning to question and explore her sexual identity even though she knows that she might end up becoming an outcast. She is also struggling with her need for a normal family life and with how to accept her family as it is. The normal conflicts between a teen-age girl and her mother are exacerbated by her mother’s illness, with Jesse left feeling that she doesn’t have a mother at all. (This is mirrored by her mother’s extreme reaction to her own mother’s “abandonment.”)
On another level this is about the dilemma that all LGBT people face: whether to hide in hopes of societal acceptance or come out and run the risk of becoming an outcast. Jesse is lucky in a way that she has to come to terms with this decision at an early age. She discovers that being accepted by the “in” crowd doesn’t make you feel “in” if you can’t be yourself. By the end of the novel we see a young lady who has taken a huge step toward living her life authentically.
This book is also about homophobia and the extremes to which some members of society will go to punish homosexuals. It’s also about the bravery of those who take a stand against homophobia, along with their empathy and sense of justice.
Perhaps because Jesse is trying so hard to fit in during the first half of the novel, her personality is somewhat subdued. But as events unfold that threaten to destroy the life she is attempting to make for herself, she becomes more fully-fleshed-out as a character and I found myself fully engrossed in her struggles to make sense of the life she really lives.
The author, Elaine Beale, a British transplant to the U.S. who now lives in Oakland, California, has set the novel in the 1970s along the eroding coastline of East Yorkshire, England. Although the book is not autobiographical, Beale obviously remembers what it was like to be a thirteen-year-old girl. Beale won the Poets & Writers 2007 Exchange Award for a partial draft of this novel. Her previous novel, the well-received Murder in the Castro: A Lou Spencer Mystery, was published in 1997 and her writings have appeared in many anthologies.