First things first, kids. Do you read The Unprofessional Critic? If not, you totally should. She’s full of super-smart and somewhat feministy (but not too feministy) views on pop culture. Oh yeah, and I guest blogged for her this week. Check me out, going on about the hopeful rebirth of the television sitcom family. Find the link here.
On to this week’s post:
Is there any greater scourge to a teenage protagonist in Y.A. lit than an older sister? If there is, don’t tell Andrea Marshall about it, because she has her hands full dealing with her older sister Elaine in Stella Pevsner’s best book, And You Give Me a Pain, Elaine. Pevsner is probably better known for Cute is a Four-Letter Word and Sister of the Quints, but neither one can hold a candle to Elaine, a book that is so real and heartbreaking and one that I can’t believe everybody hasn’t read.
Thirteen year old Andrea Marshall is an average eighth grader. She gets grades that are decent but not great, she struggles with her weight but is still a fairly decent self-taught gymnast, and she loathes her older sister, Elaine. Elaine is….well she’s a character. At sixteen years old, Elaine is a total disruptive force to the family. Arguing with her parents over everything, staying out all hours of the night, blasting her music, being incredibly bitchy to everyone, hanging out with the ‘wrong’ crowd…..you get the drill. She’s like every parents’ nightmare adolescent. Life in the Marshall household completely revolves around Elaine. Luckily, Andrea is super close with her twenty year old brother, Joe.
Joe’s reaction to Elaine’s antics? He doesn’t care and he tries to convince Andrea not to care either. But, as Andrea points out, it’s easy for Joe to say. He’s away at college and doesn’t have to deal with Elaine’s shit on a day to day basis. Elaine’s antics have aged their parents quickly. Mom becomes tired and withdrawn, unable to focus on anything but Elaine and Dad has a stomach ulcer that isn’t getting any better. Not to mention that every time Elaine pulls another stunt, that’s less attention Andrea gets from their parents. In addition to Joe, Andrea is able to lean on her best friend Robyn. Particularly when Joe seems to be distracted by his girlfriend, Cassie. Andrea deals with feelings of jealously toward Cassie, who’d never been anything but absolutely nice to her.
One day, Elaine runs away leaving her parents frantic and Andrea furious that Elaine could hurt their parents like this. Elaine does call at one point, saying she’s with some friends in Arizona, without giving any specifics. The parents are, of course, relieved. Andrea seems to not care that much, she knew all along Elaine wasn’t going to get herself hurt.
While Elaine is gone to Arizona, Andrea tries to get on with her life. She considers trying out for the school play, but ends up agreeing to do the special effects. It’s while she’s working on the play that she meets Chris Walker, who is doing AV for the play. They become friendly and Andrea likes him. But, of course, when he asks her out her parents say no. Andrea knows it’s because of how Elaine turned out. So even with Elaine gone, Andrea can’t get out from her shadow.
Eventually, Elaine does come home. She’s slightly more subdued, having had a terrible time in Arizona. She’s still bitchy and goes out with a bunch of bad kids, but there’s something intangible that’s changed in her. Andrea finds herself in the doldrums. While her parents and Elaine are in counseling, Andrea considers asking to go too, but never does. She decides to concentrate on the play. Also, she finds out that Cassie broke up with Joe, but it doesn’t make her feel any better, once she sees how torn up Joe is over it.
The play is a huge success. After it’s over, Andrea’s uncle comes backstage and says she has to come home immediately. When Andrea gets there, she sees the cop cars in front of the house and is furious with Elaine for running away again, ruining her big night. Except…..it’s not Elaine this time. It’s Joe. He was on his way to town to watch Andrea’s play and crashed his motorcycle and didn’t survive.
Through her grief, Andrea begins to realize what Joe had been trying to teach her all along. That she is more than Elaine’s sister. She is her own person and as long as she concerns herself too much over what Elaine is up to, she’ll never be able to believe that she can be anything but Elaine’s sister. Andrea deals with guilt over the fact that it was her Joe was coming home to see. Then when she and Elaine actually sit down and talk to one another, we learn that Elaine feels guilty in her own way because she didn’t make time for Joe on the weekends he was home visiting. Andrea has a sudden realization about her sister. That she’s not just angry, but a terribly sad person who never let herself get close with anyone in the family, not just Joe. As Andrea lets go of worrying about what Elaine is getting away with, she feels a sense of hope that Elaine can figure things out for herself.
- If you cry easily – you will cry at this book. Even if you don’t cry all that easily, you’ll likely cry. I’ve been putting off reviewing this book AND Bridge to Terabithia because I cry just thinking about them. But since I was able to get through this, I might actually pull out my old copy of BtT.
- We are never given a why for Elaine’s behavior. And I like that we aren’t. Because doing so could have turned this great book into Lifetime Movie material.
- Joe is surprisingly astute for a twenty year old boy. When Andrea is complaining that their parents do nothing to discipline Elaine, he points out “Kids don’t come with directions like appliances. The best parents can do is push different buttons and hope everything comes out all right.” He also says (metaphorically speaking) that Elaine, “Shouldn’t hang by her knees unless she has the strength to pull herself back up.”
- Sometimes parents just say the wrong thing. At one point, Elaine empties out her checking account. When Andrea gets home from school, her mom is trying to figure out why. Andrea asks if Elaine is home. Mom’s response? “If Elaine were home would I be standing her talking to you?” And when Andrea answers “No,” mom doesn’t even get it.
- Elaine is truly breaking her mother’s heart, as Andrea learns when she discovers a poem that mom wrote mourning the lost adolescence of Elaine. Andrea drafts her own poem, which delivers the title line of this book.
- When I heard that Elaine and the parents were in counseling, all I could think of was little Ned Flanders in counseling with his beatnik parents. (“you gotta help us, doc! We’ve tried nothin’ and we’re all outta ideas…..”)
- The school’s newspaper is called Junior High Times. Did High Times not exist back when this was publishes (1978)? Because I’m pretty sure no school would allow a paper that had the phrase High Times in it.
- After Joe dies, Cassie takes Andrea out to lunch and gives her the present Joe had bought her for her eighth grade graduation. Gifts from beyond the grave give me the willies.
- I can’t say enough good things about this book. I seriously hope that this gets reprinted sometime. It was a bitch to find in a used bookstore and I eventually had to use a paperbackswap credit to get it. But it’s timelessness would really appeal to kids today. I think the themes of sibling rivalry, first crushes and grief will never go out of style and I’ve rarely read a Y.A. book that handles any of those themes better than And You Give Me a Pain, Elaine.
Sorry if this post is full of typos. I’m buried under 30+ inches of snow here (with more expected tomorrow!) and my husband has been using the computer to work from home because Metro isn’t running above ground. So….long story short. I didn’t have a crapload of time to write a post.