A Mixed Message on Morality

Myers teaches literature for young people at UCLA and at Scripps College, Claremont, and is writing a study of its development

Will You Be My Posslq? by Eve Bunting (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $12.95 hardcover; 181 pages).

Striking titles often sell books, and so do alluring covers. This story boasts both, and it further solicits reader interest by uniting the two main strands of realistic young-adult fiction--the young love story and the problem novel.

As many may know, the weird acronym stands for "persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters." However useful the census bureau may find it, Smith has pointed out, nobody really says it in ordinary life. In this novel they do--frequently. Handsome blond UCLA sophomore Kyle Pendleton says it to anxious freshman Jamie McLaughlin, and their posslquing provides one of the book's two competing themes.

Jamie and her two sisters in San Francisco grapple with the modern girl's classic dilemma, what to do about love and sex before marriage. Phoebe, the older sister, infuriated her conservative parents by living with her boyfriend and having his baby. Now with a second child on the way, she agrees to marriage at last; the paper wedding dress she insists on indicates her feeling of entrapment. Tigger, 14, is thinking about "you know . . . doing it with Wick," a neighborhood boy, because if she doesn't, some other girl will and she'll lose him.

Explorations of Young Love

But the moral and emotional explorations of young love are wed to a very different theme--young death, by cancer. It is an interesting but somewhat awkward marriage. On the highly symbolic cover, Kyle stands grinning before a sofa and a window framing palms; Jamie sits at a table worriedly clutching her pink bathrobe together with more than maidenly modesty.

Just coming to know love, her body already carries a huge scar from her brush with death. Her hair has grown back from the chemotherapy, and the cancer seems to be in permanent remission, thanks to a (stereotypically) caring doctor. But Jamie is still pursued by nightmares, still goes in for tests and faithfully visits old friends in the cancer ward.

Like Jamie's brain and body, the novel wavers between two themes: the growing attraction between "living partners" that threatens their "business relationship," and the struggles of the terminally ill in the hospital.

This conflict comes to the fore when Charm Smith, the stunning girl who eternally suns herself by Jamie's apartment pool, has designs on Kyle (one might expect a receptionist who works for a plastic surgeon to know the results of too much sun exposure), and Jamie oscillates between anxiety about Charm and worry about cancer.

The book's moral message is similarly mixed. Bunting wants to have it both ways--to deal with a heavyweight issue and still maintain the stable morality that underscores Phoebe's error and warns Tigger in time: "She'd made a mistake moving out to be with Jack . . . . It's not glamorous or romantic or any of those things. It's just dumb."

Recurrent Nightmare

And the author wants to show untimely suffering and death, yet exorcise the demon, so Jamie's traumatic experience, now over, is displaced onto a dying friend. Despite the scar and the recurrent nightmare, which Kyle, God-like, soothes, she seems almost untouched by her brush with death. Her hair is gloriously thick again, and she has never lost her girlish tendency to blush.

Despite the palms on the cover and the occasional references to the UCLA scene, the book has very little sense of individualized place or voice.

The misspelling of Hilgard Avenue as "Hilgarde" is indicative, and it's hard to imagine a college girl using the term underpants. The few students characterized don't sound like students of anywhere in particular really, and they are surely a world away from the strung-out California kids of the now notorious "Less Than Zero." But then books like Bunting's aren't really written for readers of college age, but for much younger kids who want to learn about love and life in a reassuring way.

So the characters are homogenized, and the sex sanitized and moralized--a little kissing, but once "his body" starts "straining to me, wanting me the way I wanted him," Jamie realizes that posslquing has dangerous consequences and that it's time to terminate the arrangement, though not the relationship.

By casting the sexual dilemmas within the posslq gimmick, the book evades real exploration of the sexual problems it raises. Despite the story's quite explicit moralizing in relation to Phoebe and Tigger, Kyle and Jamie are obviously on the brink of becoming lovers: "I won't be your posslq. I will be your girl, though." Finis.

An Upbeat Message

The book is readable, the kids are nice, and the message is upbeat, despite the vivid scenes in the cancer ward, the waste of Jamie's friend Donna Lyn's death, and the bitterness of the girl's boyfriend. Bunting's treatment of Jamie's encounter with mortality is moving, though necessarily superficial.

Bunting couldn't have turned out more than 100 books for the young if she didn't know her formulas. The young reader wants to know that the heroine will always be OK, that she'll win out over the wiles of the beautiful Charm, that she'll get the guy. The mature reader knows that neither sex nor cancer retreat so obediently when the page count nears 200.

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