Norma Klein has a habit of writing teens who are preternaturally mature. But none are moreso than Oliver Simon, the twin brother of fourteen year old Carla Simon. This book is told from the point of view of Carla, and she uses words like ‘lugubrious.’ And she’s not nearly as smart as Oliver.
It didn’t matter to me back then, reading about kids my own age being incredibly mature and smart. I liked it, in fact. It seems a little precocious now, but it doesn’t really stop me from enjoying a good Norma Klein book.
The summer when they’re fourteen, Oliver and Carla decide to open a restaurant in a neighbor’s house. I’m going to pause to let that sink in. Two fourteen year olds, opening a fancy restaurant (A Cote de Chez Simon) in their neighbor’s house. Oliver, it turns out, is an amazing chef and loves to try recipes from Gourmet Magazine.
And because child labor laws don’t exist in Norma Klein-land, nor do health and safety laws, they do manage to open a restaurant with the help of their brother, Ralph and his girlfriend, Saralee, and a few other friends from school. Ralph and Saralee are the only ones over 18.
Oliver and Carla are also dealing with their parents’ separation. Their dad had just moved out of their house and into a sublet apartment in New York City. Carla is afraid they’ll get divorced, or that their dad is having an affair but Oliver seems a little detached and unconcerned with it.
Their dad comes to the restaurant with a date, Frances. Carla really wants to hate Frances, but she turns out to be very nice, and not even a hippie at all. This book was published in 1973, by the way. That same night, Carla spies their mother getting a little cozy(ish) on the couch with the father of the two waitresses at the restaurant. Oliver, the mature one, is all right with it, but Carla is unhappy. She doesn’t like the feeling of their lives changing so much.
Then Saralee ends up pregnant, and confiding in Oliver. Oliver strong-arms Carla into offering to pay for her abortion with their restaurant money. But their brother Ralph is a little offended by that and he ends up paying for it.
Carla finds herself having a lot of mood swings all summer long. Long periods of melancholy and annoyance and even a little anger at her parents, at Ralph and Saralee for getting pregnant, and at Oliver for not feeling like she does. When her mom calls her out on it, Carla opens up. And she learns that her mom had an abortion when she was younger. She’d had a boyfriend who died of Hodgkin’s Disease. Carla, while not happy about hearing about her mom, feels a lot closer to her mom than she had before.
At the end of the book, their father comes home. Carla asks her mom what was the reason behind their separation, and her mom talks about how her dad wouldn’t be happy until he’d finished this novel he had been working on for so long. So he left, thinking it would make him happy, but it didn’t. So everyone was happy at the end. Then they all have a big dinner with their friends on the last night the restaurant is open.
- OK. These kids are so mature, they can openly discuss their parents’ sex lives without getting weird. Like, their dad told Oliver he’d never slept with anyone until he met their mother. And Carla finds this fascinating, but isn’t grossed out by parent sex.
- Then after this conversation, Carla tells us that she thinks marrying the first person you sleep with is a bad idea, and she plans on having at least six love affairs until she gets married – which won’t be until she’s twenty-five at least. I like this girl. Purity culture is gross makes me want to punch people.
- At the beginning of the book, it seems like there are small hints that Oliver is gay, but then he ends up going out with Letty, who works with them in the restaurant and is also in their chamber music group. Yes, these fourteen year old kids have a chamber music group because why not.
- At one point, one of the waitresses at the restaurant feels like a male customer is propositioning her, and everyone shrugs it off, “Men are just like that.” This makes me a little uncomfortable, and something I wouldn’t have expected from Norma Klein, who writes a good, feminist character.
- You know how much dinner costs at the restaurant? $8.00. Which gets you soup, appetizer, entree and dessert. Eight-freaking dollars. 1973, right?
- Just going to repeat this because it’s crazy. Two fourteen year olds successfully run a french restaurant for one summer. Fourteen. At fourteen my biggest accomplishment was making All-County Band.