Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2013.
The Plot: Slut.
That’s the word thrown at Anna. Cutting as a knife. Creating a barrier between herself and the world. Except for the boys.
Desmond, Joey, Todd, and the others.
Yes, they take something, but they also give her something she needs. Warmth; attention; love; a story, a story with Anna being the important one. The one who is needed and wanted.
The Good: I loved this book so, so much.
Uses For Boys is not an easy book; it is not a pretty book. This is a deceptively short and brief book: Anna is telling a story, yes, but she tells what she wants to tell.
Anna, so alone and lonely, an odd little child at the start, holding onto a half-invented past when it was only Anna and her mother, and they only needed each other. Anna looks at that point in the past, to herself at age seven, as almost a golden age of her life: “In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times, when I’m seven and there are no stepbrothers and it’s before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed.”
With each marriage, Anna and her mother move into a bigger and better home, until finally it’s just the two of them in the latest house. Her mother is the sort who needs a man in her life, and she is often away with her latest boyfriend, leaving Anna alone.
Anna, so alone and lonely with walls she doesn’t even know she has. I wonder, how, at thirteen, Desmond saw the need in her, saw her weakness, and zeroed in on her as the girl to sit next to on the bus, to without invitation put his hand on her breast and then guide her hand to his pants. Here’s the thing: Desmond is a creep. Anna is passive. But Anna also physically likes what is happening to her body when it is touched: the warmth, the feelings, the sense of connection. She doesn’t say no; she doesn’t say yes; she hopes it happens again.
Anna paints pictures in her head, telling herself stories, making the encounter more than what it was. She has long conversations in her head, shaping what happened, explaining, to herself, rehearsing words she never shares with others.
Her stories don’t come true. Desmond ignores her, and now she is the “slut” who loses the only friend she has.
Anna, alone and lonely and neglected. Now she is fourteen, and the second boy is Joey, and she connects with him the only way she knows about connecting with boys. Wanting emotional intimacy, she uses physical intimacy to get it. And yet: I do not see Anna as a victim here. She initiates it, in part because it feels good. “When he kisses me, I feel important. Like I’m everything to him. Sometimes everything happy bubbles up and I want to be chased around the house.” Quite simply, “I like the way he makes me feel.” But Joey leaves, to go live with his father.
Next is Todd. She is at a party and she thinks she may be attracted to him. Instead, he rapes her, and that is also complicated and messy and nuanced because she had liked him and she wants her stories to go a certain way. A way where she is not a victim, where she is not alone, where she is wanted.
Finally, Anna makes a female friend who doesn’t judge her: Toy. Toy who has her own boyfriends, and as she talks about them to Anna, Anna feels jealous that the boys in her life don’t live up to those in Toy’s life. These two bond over more than talking about boys: the actually connect at Goodwill, looking for clothes, Anna thinking that she can create a new persona based on finding the right clothes. The right jeans and a striped shirt; the right retro dress and Converse sneakers. They are both daughters of single mothers, and their friendship is one of the bright spots in Anna’s life even though she often thinks how her stories, her boys, aren’t as good as Toy’s.
Next is Josh. Anna is now sixteen. She meets Josh and the next thing we hear her telling her mother she is moving in with him and for a second, because of the jump in time, because I’ve seen how Anna tells stories to shape her reality, I wondered whether Josh had indeed asked her. But no, it’s true, and she shapes her life to be the narrative she wants: a girl with a boy, wanted by a boy, working at a job, having a cozy nest together. Anna drops out of school, moves in with Josh, saves the money from her coffee shop job.
At one point, later in the story, she thinks, “I look like the girl I imagined I’d be.” Except, at least in this telling, all the imaginings area about the boys.
OK, spoilers — because this is one of the books that I have to talk about whole. Of course, her time with Josh turns out to not be the story she’d imagined in her head. Josh is a decent sort, yes, but he is not her answer.
Anna finds her own place, a small shabby studio apartment. She also finds a new boyfriend, Sam, who is so Perfect he’s out of central casting: his parents are still married to each other, he has an older brother and a younger sister. There are home made dinners. They welcome Anna.
The back cover says Anna “finally learns how it feels to have something to lose — and something to offer.” I see it slightly different. With Sam, with his family, for the first time Anna sees a functional family unit. (More on that below). I think she falls in love with his family more than Sam. Early in their relationship, after barely a date, Sam is gone, Anna is lonely, and she meets that need the way she always has: she meets a boy. They have sex. Later on, another crisis occurs in her relationship with Sam and she also is betrayed by Toy and she begins to do what she has always done: meet a boy to feel better.
Except, this time, Anna doesn’t have sex with him.
It’s not because Sam has “saved” her. It’s not because Anna has decided “oh no that is slutty” or any other such shallow reason. It’s because she doesn’t need to. She doesn’t need to create stories to feel something, to feel important. She doesn’t need to use him.
Anna has realized truths about herself, and the stories she tells herself, and the stories Toy tells herself.
Anna realizes the truth is she can change her own story. And not in a, “with this boy it will be different” way, and not in a “if a boy is in this story, I matter” way. Instead, Anna realizes her life is her own story, and it can be what she wants it to be, and not what others want. She’s important because she is Anna; and while she doesn’t have the family Sam has, she doesn’t have to keep looking for that belonging in boys. She can create her own family from the people in her life: yes, Sam and his family, but also her mother and Toy.
As you can see, I just adored this book. There are some things that made me go “huh,” in part because Anna’s narrative is very Anna-focused. I am not sure about her mother’s age or name or job. I wondered at how much of what Anna said I could believe; is her mother really this neglectful, leaving her daughter for such long periods of time?
Given how pro-female-sexuality this book is, (and while Anna’s motives for sex were sometimes based on wanting to fill an emotional void, it was also sometimes just because she liked sex) I also went “huh” over the contrast between single/divorced families (all dysfunctional) and traditionally married couples (all awesome). But I think Anna was beginning to grasp that things were not as she thought towards the end of the book: she thinks of her mother and for the first time realizes “how much is missing from [her] story.” Maybe her mother is not so awful as she appears to be.
The time period of the book is uncertain. Anna’s telling was often dream like, skipping sections or details. Given the lack of mobile phones or computers, and the use of pay phones, and some of the fashion references, I’d say it’s set in the 80s but it could just as easily be set now.
I’m marking this down as a Favorite Book Read in 2013, because of Anna. Because Uses For Boys has a terrific ending, even if it’s not easy and doesn’t give tidy answers. Because (as you can see from some of the reviews, below) it has created quite a stir about what it means to be a “slut” and what it means to be a teenage girl who has sex.
Other reviews: Stacked; The Rejectionist about the book and an author interview; Wrapped Up in Books.