When I was growing up, I wanted so badly to be in so many of the books that I’ve read. But none more than the Norma Klein books. You have to understand how unbelievably sophisticated the teenage characters in her books seemed to me. They lived in New York, attended prestigious high schools, had frequent sex, had very close but somehow still hands-off relationships with their parents, and they used words like ‘magnanimous’ and ‘esoteric’ in every day conversation. They were intellectual powerhouses. It was a far cry from my own small-town, lily-white, public school upbringing.
That said, even though I badly wanted to be a character in her books, I never really wanted to be a character in this book. Because, you know, I’d never want to fuck my stepbrother. (I don’t actually have a stepbrother, but if I did, I like to think I’d never hop in the sack with him.)
Peter and Leslie’s families have known each other for years. They have neighboring beach homes on Fire Island, so they have spent summers together forever. The year before their senior years in high school, Peter and Leslie start secretly sleeping together.
Then the end of the summer brings a bombshell. Both sets of their parents are divorcing, and Leslie’s mom is marrying Peter’s dad. So, Peter and Leslie will officially become step-siblings. Oops.
Peter and Leslie continue their relationship for the rest of the summer. But when summer ends, Leslie goes back to the city to live with her mom and Nelson (Peter’s dad), while Peter goes back to the suburbs with his mom in their old house. They don’t see each other for a few months until the actual wedding of their parents when they end up arguing.
Peter and Leslie are both overly emotional and prone to dramatics. So while Peter is wildly pissed that his ladies-man father is divorcing his dowdy-housewifely mother, Leslie is trying to make the best of it. And that also pisses Peter off. And Peter’s attitude pisses Leslie off, so she dances with Peter’s older brother at the wedding. So they go for a while without talking.
Leslie’s high school is doing a play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Leslie really wants the lead, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and is super disappointed to get the role of Elizabeth’s wild older sister, Henrietta. She’s so upset about it, she calls Peter to complain and they end up resuming their relationship. But it’s always rocky and uneven. They fight a lot and they seem to focus all their energy on the negative things about each other. They’re the whiniest bunch of Norma Klein protagonists ever.
As the months go on, cracks start to appear in the new marriage between Leslie’s mother and Peter’s father. Mostly because Peter’s father is an incurable philanderer. Leslie and her mom have never been close, so it gets crazy uncomfortable when her mom decides that Leslie is flirting with Nelson and starts acting like she’s competition. All because she and Nelson enter a father/daughter squash competition. And really, just because Leslie is totally cool with shacking up with her step-brother, doesn’t mean she’d be OK with her stepfather.
Peter’s mom decides to move to Chicago to go to college, so Peter moves in with his father, Leslie and Leslie’s mother. Awk-ward. On a trip to Chicago for Peter to visit his mother and Leslie to interview at University of Chicago, Peter’s mom possibly catches them kissing. (If she did, she never says anything about it, and that whole plot point is left weirdly dangling.)
Shit at home is going downhill fast between Leslie and her mom. So Leslie moves in with her dad and tries to take Peter along. But because Peter isn’t quite 18, he actually has to go back to his dad. But they spend weekends together and Leslie’s dad catches on pretty quick that the two of them are…ahem…involved. (that is to say, fucking.) He doesn’t care because he is a Norma Klein parent and they never do.
Then Peter’s dad leaves Leslie’s mom. Then Leslie kicks all kinds of ass playing against type in her school play and she gets into Chicago. Peter is off to Harvard. And the relationship between Leslie and Peter becomes not such a secret anymore. The summer before they leave for college, Leslie and Peter decide to drive cross-country and that’s where the story ends.
- A little off topic, but this book reminded me of something I learned reading Savage Love. It’s called the Westermarck Effect, which says that kids being raised together instinctively develop a sexual aversion to one another. But when older kids are added to the mix, no such aversion develops. So I guess step-siblings banging one out isn’t unusual. Suddenly Greg and Marcia Brady’s relationship doesn’t seem so innocuous, does it? Also, Dan Savage is a national treasure, people.
- This is a Norma Klein book. So all parents are totally OK with their teenagers smoking pot. They smoke pot openly in their apartments. Not like most of us who had to hide in the park before school and then just hope none of the teachers caught on. Or so I’ve heard.
- The word fuck can be used so many different ways. I don’t think I’d ever heard the word ‘fuckingly’ until reading this book. As is, “I hated him….for being so fuckingly self-satisfied.” Fuckingly, interestingly, is not in my spell check.
- At one point,while their relationship is in the off position, Peter calls Leslie ‘jappy,’ and ugh. I just hate that word.
- There is no bigger douchecanoe (also not in my spell check!) than Peter’s father. (Maybe douche-canoe is hyphenated?) He constantly hounds Peter about his weight. And he constantly hounds Peter about his personality. It means fuck all to him that his son got into Harvard early decision – the kid is fifteen pounds overweight so he’s terrible! Peter’s older brothers, who are as fit as a couple of fucking fiddles, are constantly favorably compared to him. Until the oldest brother at only 21 years old starts living with his 30 year old mother of three girl friend. And here’s what he has to say about that: “I have nothing against divorced women, but most of them, till they get a replacement, are full of bitterness and rage and ready to pounce on anyone who passes by. You may think you’re safe, just because she’s an older woman, quote unquote, but believe me, those women are dangerous. You can’t tell what might happen.” And “…at a certain age a man wants a woman who’ll make him feel younger, not some graying, overweight dame who reminds him of his mother.”
- But just because Nelson is the worst, doesn’t mean any of the other characters are that wonderful. Leslie’s mom has never gotten over the fact that Leslie has a really close relationship with her father, and practically blames Leslie’s “playing him up,” for her divorce. Then when Leslie and Nelson have the audacity to play squash together, like two whole times, she accuses Leslie of doing the same thing with him. It’s squicky and uncomfortable.
- And let’s not forget Leslie and Peter are no prize peaches either and they’re grossly mismatched.
- Here’s the thing. I’m having some sleep/food issues with my nine month old. So I’m incredibly grumpy. And I’m not sure if my grumpiness is leading to me being really harsh on these characters, particularly Peter and Leslie. But normally I’ll read Norma Klein book and totally enjoy the sexcapades of a couple of hyper-educated, hyper-hormonal teenagers. So maybe it isn’t Peter and Leslie who are hard to handle. Maybe it’s me being stressed and sleep deprived.
- I should read more Norma Klein. You wouldn’t know if from this blog, but her books played a huge part of my adolescence.