Review: Jersey Angel

Jersey Angel by Beth Ann Bauman. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2012. Review copy from publisher. Guest post about this book at this blog by Beth Ann Bauman.

The Plot: It’s the summer before Angel Cassonetti’s senior year of high school. “Summer has begun, and I am filled with hope.

Angel just wants to have fun: spending time with her friends at her home on the Jersey Shore, going to parties, working part time at her father’s business, taking care of her younger half-siblings.

The problem is it seems that those around her are wanting, well, more. Joey, her on and off again boyfriend, refuses to continue the drama of breaking up and making up and says “no” when she wants to start things up again. Inggy, her best friend, who is also good at school and from a family with more money, is already full of college plans.

Inggy’s boyfriend, Cork, is always around. If Angel doesn’t mean to hurt Inggy, and if Inggy never finds out, it’s OK, right?

The Good: Trying to figure out the synopsis was tough, because Jersey Angel is not a very plot driven book. It’s pure character driven, by one of the more remarkable girls I’ve met in a young adult.

As pointed out in Bauman’s guest post, “Here was a rebel girl, one who unapologetically likes sex, doesn’t want to be tied down, and knows college isn’t for her.

Angel likes sex, and Angel doesn’t connect sex to love. At one point, her mother tells her, “There’s love, Angel, and there’s sex. And there’s a whole lot more sex than love.” And this pretty much is Angel’s own code.

The problem is — and yes, I use the word “problem” deliberately — are the boys. First, Joey. Why does Angel keep breaking up with him? “It’s true: Joey and I break up a lot. I guess I like my freedom too much, but for me it’s always only a time-out so I can feel like I’m back in my life with all the possibilities. I like possibilities. But after a time-out, I’m always ready to come back.” Joey isn’t ready, though, and wants more from Angel than she’s ready to give.

So Joey begins seeing someone else, and Angel enjoys her possibilities. Some of those boys are unattached, like Angel. So, still not a problem. One of those boys is not: Cork. Her best friend’s boyfriend. And this is one reason I really like Jersey Angel: it’s up to the reader to understand just why Angel does this. Angel is not very self-reflective; she wants those possibilities. She’s also always optimistic, or, as Joey says about her, “you’re waiting for a bus and you’re sure it will come.

This means that the reader sees what Angel does not: that Angel loves Inggy, that Inggy is Angel’s best friend, Angel doesn’t want to lose her to college, yet Angel is also jealous, and competitive, and conflicted about all those feelings. The result? Sleeping with Cork both connects Angel and Inggy, and lets Angel take something from Inggy. Without Inggy ever realizing it. Without, really, Angel realizing why she is doing what she’s doing. She just thinks, well, that she and Cork are having fun. To the extent she thinks about Inggy, she thinks — well. She won’t find out till we’re old. She’ll understand. It won’t matter.

And here is another reason I love Jersey Angel: this is always firmly Angel’s story, so it really only matters what this means, or doesn’t mean, to Angel. When I got to the end, I thought, anyone else would have made this Inggy’s story: a story about a girl with dreams, leaving her shore town behind, having bigger ambitions than those around her, balancing wanting to stay with wanting to leave. Her boyfriend’s and best friend’s betrayal would become known, and would be a catalyst for Inggy to move towards her future.

This is not Inggy’s story.

Instead, it’s Angel’s. Angel, who isn’t overly ambitious, to be honest, and doesn’t come from ambition. Her mother, through luck and family ties, owns three houses by the shore and rents out two to cover their bills. (For the record? This isn’t that uncommon. Local families with long roots in these shore towns have houses in the families for generations, rent them out, and live in towns they wouldn’t afford to be in otherwise. Sometimes they don’t own multiple homes; rather, summer comes and the family moves into the garage apartment while the big house is rented out.) Her father runs the family-owned marina.

What does Angel want to do after graduation? Not to be too spoilery here, but part of what is great about Jersey Angel is it’s not that type of book. Angel isn’t inspired to do what Inggy does and buckle down to her studies. Angel doesn’t suddenly realize she wants to be a doctor or teacher or actress. Angel doesn’t suddenly realize she’s in love with this boy or that. It’s more Angel sorting out, a bit, her feelings and what she wants, while staying true to herself — that girl who always believes the bus is coming.

I think part of the reason I adore Angel is that I’m the sort who doesn’t believe the bus will come until it’s right in front of me, and I’ve asked the driver twice if it is indeed the bus I want.

A more personal reason I like Jersey Angel? Because, while different names and geography is used, this Jersey Shore is clearly “my” Jersey Shore, and seems to me a mix of various Ocean County shore towns. I mean, bennies! And Zeppoles! and slices!

Other reviews: The New York Times; Reading RantsBibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf; Uniquely Moi Books.

Guest Post by Beth Bauman

One of the things I really like New Adult is the conversations it inspires.

While I’ve joked about how “sexytimes” figures into whether a book is Young Adult or New Adult, I’m dead serious about young adult books and female sexuality. Want to see me rant? Just drop the s-word when talking about teenage girls. (The s-word is slut.) I also don’t like the “sexytimes” definition for New Adult because, well, Young Adult books do address sex, and sexuality.

I’m delighted to have a guest post about this topic by Beth Ann Bauman, author of Jersey Angel (Random House, 2012; paperback edition, 2013) (edited to add link to my review) and Rosie & Skate (Random House, 2009; paperback edition, 2011) (my review). I also love Beth’s post because, well, sometimes New Adult is spoken about as books set in college, or “college aged” which implies, doesn’t it, that the person should be college. And Beth talks about those people who may not be interested in college. And finally: JERSEY IN THE HOUSE. Ahem. Sorry, but Beth writes about my Jersey Shore, the area I grew up in and still live near, not some reality TV buffed and tanned version.

And, here is Beth’s post —

Why I Wanted to Write About the Girl Who Doesn’t Get Written About

When Angel Cassonetti appeared in the early stages of Jersey Angel, I was happy to meet her. Here was a rebel girl, one who unapologetically likes sex, doesn’t want to be tied down, and knows college isn’t for her. She’s the kind of girl who’s culturally marginalized, but what’s interesting about her is that she doesn’t marginalize herself. She lives her life, seeking her own truth, even as the journey reveals her flaws.

In writing the book I wanted to take on sexual desire and pleasure from a girl’s perspective. What’s interesting to me is how the old double standard still applies in the twenty-first century. Promiscuous boys inspire sly smiles—those horndogs, those bad boys—but sexually active girls are still suspect. In fact, they’re sluts, hos, words that some readers have used in online reviews to describe my character even when they like the book. If there’s been any progress on the double-standard front, it’s that many people can probably accept a girl’s sexual activity if she’s emotionally invested, if the boy she’s doing the deed with means something to her. But enjoying sex because it’s exciting and empowering, feels good, and validates one’s desirability is another story. You’ve come a long way, baby? Not quite. A girl’s horniness is still threatening. And though we may not culturally embrace this girl, she exists.

I’m also intrigued by the question of ambition. The YA landscape is filled with interesting strivers, kids on their way to adulthood with college as a likely destination on the journey. But you don’t often find stories about kids who aren’t college bound: the ones who don’t make the grades, haven’t been paying attention, or know in their hearts college isn’t for them. If the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle aim of YA fiction is to promote good values and morality, I wonder if a story about the low striver, or the kid who doesn’t try to play the college game at all, is seen as a kind of failure on the author’s part. Such a book depicts a lack of ambition that very well may be anti-American. But the truth is plenty of kids don’t go to college. They don’t want to—and wouldn’t do well if pushed in that direction. This is a class issue as well. If stories about kids in the lower classes are often about the climb out, what do we make of the girl who comfortably stays put? It seems to me that in YA literature she gets bypassed or used as the bad example.

There are many different types of teens, and in Angel I’d like to think I’ve given voice to a character we don’t often hear from. YA should represent many voices, not just those that serve as good examples. Maybe the bigger issue is why we think teens need role models in these books. As a writer, I’m interested in representing the world as it is, not as it should be. Rather than providing role models, shouldn’t fiction be a means of imagining a life other than our own? There’s value and self-expansion in doing so, and the reward might be a fuller view of the human condition.

Let’s hear it for the antiheroine, who resists others’ limited vision of her and has the courage to stand alone. In testing limits and seeing what she’s made of, she’ll screw up more often than not—which epitomizes the teen years—but in the process she may find a richer, more hard-won path to selfhood.

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Thank you, Beth!

Review: Rosie and Skate

Rosie and Skate by Beth Ann Bauman. Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House. 2009. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Rosie, 15, and Skate, 16, are left alone in a falling-down Victorian when their dad, a drunk, serves three and a half months for shoplifting.  Their cousin Angie moves in to help out. Rosie, the shyer of the two, goes to meetings and hopes that this time her father stays sober. Skate, more cynical, moves in with her boyfriend’s mother while he’s away at college.  Together and apart, they try to figure out their lives.

The Good: Rosie and Skate is set at the Jersey Shore during the off-season, after all the tourists (cough MTV’s Jersey Shore crowd cough) go home. The author wisely creates her own towns (Ocean Heights High School, Little Mermaid, Sea Cove) while using recognizable landmarks (“Old Barney” (the Barnegat Lighthouse), Asbury Park Press, Ocean County College). It’s just the right mix of grounded details so that someone like me, who is familiar with the area, knows where it is, but just enough freedom for Baumann to create a geography that works for her story. My favorite part? The train Skate takes to Rutgers to visit her boyfriend, Perry. A handful of you are sitting up straight saying, “New Brunswick isn’t on the North Jersey Coast line.” To which I say, Baumann never says Skate doesn’t change trains.

The real shore is the shore after summer ends, when the crowds and tourists go away, the party ends, life returns. What I love about Baumann’s use of an off-season tourist town is it works as a metaphor for the family. The party: the family great grandparents, that could afford to build a beachfront Victorian complete with butler’s pantry. The party: the drinks that warm and make one glowy and happy and dizzy. The season ends; and now the house is falling down and leaking and full of splinters and decay, the rooms shut up, just like Rosie and Skate’s family has come undone, with a dead mother, a father in jail, grandparents summering in Florida, and the sisters not even living together. The season ends; and getting drunk is not the fun laughs, it’s a father passed out on the sun porch and stealing his child’s summer job money from her sock drawer.

Both sisters have been affected by their father’s drinking, but both deny it. Rosie is shy and lonely and wants friendship and love; both to be loved and to love. She awkwardly tries to connect with a classmate, Nick, who she meets an an Alateen-like meeting. Awkward, because she’s not quite sure what to do, how to balance what she needs with what she wants with what is smart.

Skate (really Olivia, but nicknamed for her skateboarding) is in love with Perry, and Perry loves her, but he is now a freshman at Rutgers. Skate lives with Perry’s mother, an understanding woman who gives the motherless Skate just enough support, love and mothering without overwhelming her or chasing her away. Problem is, Julia is also Perry’s mother and Perry, while professing his love for Skate, calls less and less and visits less and less. Julia is in a tough place, wanting what is best for both Perry and Skate, knowing that what is best may not be what makes them happy. Skate reacts the way she reacted to her father being put in jail: running away. Instead of running back to her home, she runs instead to her boss, Frank. Frank is twenty-one and has a line of girlfriends and it is a credit to Baumann that as the friendship between Skate and Frank deepens I never once thought, “eww” or “oh, she’s just looking for a father figure.”

Together, Rosie and Skate are sisters who know they can always depend on each other whether or not they sleep in the same house. They also learn that sometimes, despite what history has taught them, they can depend on other people.