Sunday, October 30, 2005

Conditions of Love, by Ruth Pennebaker

Sarah loves her father unconditionally, because that's the way he loved her before he died. But as time has gone by, she is starting to learn things about him (and about herself) that make her question her beliefs. Her best friend Ellie is struggling with a mother who can't cope with her divorce and with a sister who is moody and trouble, but Sarah just wants to escape into a world of romance with Ben and dating tips from her new friend Stephanie. And then there is her opinionated and negative grandmother Nana who makes life a terror for Sarah's mother.

If you get a sense that there's a lot going on in this book, you're right. In fact, there are a number of storylines here, very few of which actually interrelate in any meaningful sense. That spells trouble. Editor?? Is there an editor in the house? Pennebaker has good material here and has an excelent sense of how teens talk (although not necessarily what they talk about), but really needed to find a focus for this novel, that is basically all over the map.

The narrative also suffers from a problem that I find often in YA books. Sarah is an odd mixture of highly-observent (much wiser than her years) yet unaware of her own feelings. She casually observes everyone else's body language, while remaining ignorant of her own needs. I suppose that one could argue that teens can get this way, but it seems to me far more likely the opposite is true: real teens are more likely to be self-aware than other aware. Basically, Pennebaker is putting her adult words into Sarah's mouth (although sometimes Sarah will credit her mother with an observation). That is rough, giving the novel the sort of preachy quality one finds in Judy Blume books. Again, an editor would have helped.

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