"I’m not charming. I have lousy skin. I’m fat…." or Going Backwards


Thanks to Amazon.com for the image.

Well, I have a confession to make. I told everyone (probably more than once) that this was my favorite Norma Klein book. But this isn’t the book I was thinking of, and now I have no idea which one I was thinking of. I think it’s the one about the Jewish kid living in New York losing his virginity. That should narrow it down.

Still, it’s not like Going Backwards is bad. It’s typical NK. Take a look at the cover though. Charles is totally 80’s looking – nice tight acid washed jeans there, sweetie. But I must say that I’m kind of in love with Wendy’s outfit. Legwarmers and all. And I think I may be guilty of having said that anyone ever caught wearing legwarmers should be shot. Generally, I consider legwarmers to be up there with popped collars. But somehow, I really love her outfit, long sweater, pretty scarf, legwarmers and ballet flats. She pulls it off, 80’s or no. (Sorry about the big white block on the image. It was the only image I could find on all the internets. Someday, I will get a working scanner.)

This book is told from the POV of 16 year old Charles Goldberg. He lives in (guess where?) New York City with his parents, 10 y.o. brother Kaylo and his Grandmother. Charles’ grandmother is suffering from alzheimer’s disease and her living there is creating some stress in the family. Charles’ dad can’t imagine putting his mother in to a home, even with all the stress that Granny’s increasingly erratic behavior is causing.

Charles goes to Diamond, a high school for artistically gifted kids. Charles is a good singer, but he’s not great. He doesn’t stick out at his school. Charles’ younger brother is a piano prodigy and Charles sometimes feels a little sibling rivalry. Charles has a little low self-esteem, which honestly is kind of refreshing to read in a NK book. Usually her characters are unbelievably confident. But not Charles. He’s shy around the ladies, he’s slightly overweight and he has bad skin. He has only one real friend, Kim, who’s Korean parents insist on him not having a girlfriend in high school.

But still, he kinda wants a girlf. So he asks out this girl from his school, Wendy, a formerly anorexic ballerina. Wendy’s a bitch, but I’m not sure that was NK’s intention for that character. I think we were supposed to sympathize with her or something, but actually, she’s pretty insulting to Charles. And she’s a total dullard.

So time goes by, Charles’ dad decides to put Granny in a home, but she dies the day before she’s to move. Charles goes on a few dates with Wendy, none of which are terribly successful, but they do make out a little bit. Charles leaves for college, he gets a black girlfriend, Kim and Wendy end up together, Charles loses weight and his dad dies. That’s pretty much it.

  • Dad is a pathologist. Mom runs a catering company. They live in a twelve room apartment in Manhattan. Twelve rooms; I’ll give you all a minute to let that sink in. How much fucking money do a pathologist and a caterer make?
  • Siblings named Charles and Kaylo are totally anachronistic, and I wish there was an explanation for those two names. I always think too much about character names in novels though….in real life too.
  • The perfume Charles buys for his mom (and Granny and housekeeper) is called Scoundrel Musk. And I’m like, what the fuck? Who would wear perfume called Scoundrel Musk?
  • Yeah, housekeeper. The Goldberg’s have Josie, the black housekeeper. She practically raised Charles and she’s sassy and keeps him in line. He really does love her like a mother, and is, in fact, more of a presence than Charles’ own mother.
  • Charles’ dad is also more of a presence than mom. Dad is constantly telling stories of his own teenage sexual escapades, making Charles feel bad about his lack of experience. But at least he won’t get the VD! (That’s 1980’s-ese for STD, my young friends).
  • There are always people dealing drugs at Diamond-grass & cocaine. Charles has tried most, but it’s not a habit, because he figures he’s socially strange enough. Not that I’m advocating recreational drug use. But sometimes, that helps.
  • Wendy blames her anorexia on men. She kinda hates men, and poor Charles is just too slack-jawed around the ladies to even defend himself and his brethren. I think the causes of one person’s anorexia must be a little deeper than “all men did this to me.”
  • The morning after his first date with crazy-Wendy, Charles says his whole life has been warped by having been surrounded by women of strength (i.e., mom, Josie and pre-alzheimers Granny). I don’t think adding Wendy to that mix is going to make Charles less neurotic.
  • Here’s what I don’t get. This family is obviously well-off enough to live in a twelve room apartment in Manhattan. They want for nothing. Charle & Kaylo’s college tuition and private school tuition is no problemo. So why can’t they hire home-based nursing care for Granny? A huge deal is made over how the only two choices are to take care of her at home or to stuff her in some nursing home. I mean, it’s really not fair to Charles to leave Granny in his care, I get that. And I get that mom and dad work a lot, and Josie is a house keeper, not an elder-care worker. So why not hire a nurse or two?
  • Charles goes to Cornell. His cousin (a Yalie) totally turns down her nose at Cornell. She’s like, “why didn’t you apply to Harvard or Yale?” Oh geez, if only she could see exactly where I got my craptacular college edu-ma-cation.
  • Oh, and Charles is all ashamed when his cousin asks that. He hangs his head in shame, “my grades aren’t all that great.” Um, last I checked, Cornell is a decent school.
  • Remember how I said the characters in NK novels are usually Jewish, but usually are not observant? The same is true here. They don’t sit shivah for either Granny or dad, they don’t go to synagogue. Though Charles does mention his mom is Catholic, so I guess that technically makes him Catholic (aren’t people usually the mom’s religion?). But he self-identifies Jewish. So *shrugs* I don’t know. Being non-religious is so much easier.
  • At the very end of the book, after Dad’s funeral, Charles’ mom tells him that his dad OD’ed Granny on valium rather then sending her to the nursing home. And Charles is just kind of, “Oh, OK.” about it. But delving into that storyline really would be much more interesting. And certainly more interesting than the rest of this dull, yet unobjectionable book.
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About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
This entry was posted in norma klein, teen sex. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to "I’m not charming. I have lousy skin. I’m fat…." or Going Backwards

  1. Maybe you should be Wendy (or BSC Claudia) for Halloween!

  2. Sadako says:

    THEY HAVE A TWELVE ROOM APARTMENT IN MANHATTAN? Okay, maybe you're including stuff like bathrooms or living rooms. BUT STILL!! A TWELVE BEDROOM APARTMENT. Jeez.Oh, the review was also very awesome, and I want to check it out. I also noted that a lot of NK's characters seem almost too good to be true. Or not too good–but I definitely engaged in a lot of wish fulfillment when I was reading them. Like, "Man, Paul gets to write plays, walk dogs, be independent, have a love affair, use big words…" Or the kid in "No More Saturday Nights" goes to Columbia with a BABY in tow whereas when I went, I barely was able to make it to a party with alcohol without losing my shit.Ahem. THEY HAVE A TWELVE BEDROOM APARTMENT IN MANHATTAN!!!

  3. nikki says:

    Elissa, I'm a mom now. I get to be a mom towing a kid around for halloween. You should know that too :)Sadako – Yes. A twelve fucking room apartment. I don't think it's twelve bedrooms, but still… Twelve. Fucking. Rooms.

  4. I just moved into my first real apartment(not in NYC, though) and it's four rooms (five if I count the hall closet that I can technically fit my body into) and I absolutely love it. Scoundrel Musk sounds disgusting and, at the very least, not a women's perfume.

  5. LiLu says:

    I never read this one… Might have to pick it up before my flight home this Friday! 🙂

  6. Carin says:

    Did you ever find the NK book about the boy losing his virginity? Could it be Angel Face? The most memorable NK boy losing his virginity for me was Family Secrets but I think you'd remember the whole – with his soon to be step-sister bit.

  7. katy says:

    My favourite Norma Klein book was "No More Saturday Nights" – I had forgotten about it until this post, but it was a find from a Used bookstore I read over and over at 16…

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