Another coming-of-age trilogy today, this time Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade series. Briefly, it’s a tale of urban poverty and the struggle to escape it. LaVaughn is growing up in the “projects” of some unnamed American city, and she wants out. But there are so many obstacles and contingencies. Her father was killed in a gang shooting when she was small. Her friends’ families have to deal with drug problems, divorce, domestic violence, and the general hopelessness that accompanies being poor.
In the first book, Make Lemonade, 14-year-old LaVaughn accepts a babysitting job from Jolly, a 17-year-old single mother of two. She starts babysitting Jolly’s children, while her own mother disapproves from the sidelines. LaVaughn is horrified by Jolly’s filthy apartment and becomes increasingly devoted to helping her kids. Jolly resents LaVaughn’s know-it-all-ness as much as she clings to her for support. And LaVaughn’s mother worries that Jolly is pulling LaVaughn farther away from her college ambitions. The dynamic between the three characters is complex and surprising.
The second book, True Believer, shifts its focus to LaVaughn’s high school experience. Her two best childhood friends have suddenly become evangelical Christians (their club song is titled, hilariously, “Cross Your Legs for Jesus”). She falls in love with another childhood friend, who recently moved back into her building. Except [spoiler!] it is painfully obvious to everyone but LaVaughn that he isn’t interested in girls. Amid all this confusion, LaVaughn discovers she has an aptitude for science and decides to become a nurse.
Both books are well-crafted and emotionally gripping. So it’s too bad that Book 3, This Full House, sucks. It is ruined by a completely unrealistic and contrived plot, packed with laughably improbable twists of fate. This is especially disappointing in a book that is supposed to reflect the experience of Anykid, Anywhere (or “the community of poverty” as one online reviewer gushes).
There are a few obvious things to say about this series (“obvious” because they are mentioned by all the reviewers on Amazon). One is that the author carefully conceals the race or colour of LaVaughan and her friends. In an interview, Wolff explains that she “hoped that the readers of Make Lemonade would have the characters be whatever ethnicity they needed them to be.” This is a laudable goal, but I also think that knowing the cultural background/city/neighbourhood of book characters adds so much. Readers will either identify and empathize with LaVaughn or they won’t, no matter where she is from.
The other obvious thing is that the novels are written in free verse. This is what Wolff has to say about that:
I wanted young girls in Jolly’s situation, maybe pregnant or with babies, and maybe going back to school, to be able to say, “I read two chapters!” In the amount of time they had, with the amount of concentration they could muster, I wanted them to be able to get through the book.
Condescending? Maybe a tad. On the other hand, I also read these books in snatches on the bus to and from work, which reminded me of Audre Lord’s acknowledgment that poetry is the most economical of all art forms, “the one that can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.” As a busy student, I imagined I would lots of time to read and write once freed from the shackles of looming exams and growing debt. And now as a government drone working professional, I take to heart the notion of still needing time and money and space to make art, but also to read, watch, examine, and be inspired by it.
Most oft-cited quote:
The word COLLEGE is in my house, / and you have to walk around it in the rooms, / like furniture.
I believe in possibility. / In the possibility of / possibility. / Of the world making sense one day.
Reading Age: 11 to 15
Rating: A- except for This Full House, which gets a B for forced suspension of disbelief.