People who read some will have reading pleasures but those who read a lot will have guilty pleasures. These vary, from crime stories through harlequins to zombie horrors, but invariably an ambitious reader with a guilty pleasure will look for the holy grail: the novel which is both their beloved genre and simply a good book. As my guilty pleasure is – wait for it – teen drama, Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville comes very close to my holy grail category.
This is a story of a small town girl, not particularly popular, sort of attractive, sort of smart and a self-defined sidekick. At first, I sensed two red flags that tend to make me dislike a book. First of all, it seems very episodic and while the kind of story without an actual plot might be life-like in its randomness, it does not tend to grab you. But in the second half of the book a pleasantly non-grand plot actually emerges. Secondly, I am wary of books which use descriptions of physiological facts of life to prove themselves grounded in reality. Grounded they may be, but they tend to stuck your mental eye with images you did not want there which ruin your appetite (hello, Portnoy’s Complaint). However, as Zanesville tells more and more the story of a child turning into a young girl, the very physiology of this process becomes important and refreshingly honest.
A Bildungsroman has two ways to go. It can become a generational manifesto which you love because of affinity. You think to yourself: “I had the same shoes when I was a kid!”, “I listened to that song every Saturday too!” Obviously, Zanesville couldn’t work for me on that level, even though I found the details interesting in their own right. But other novels transcend this attraction and speak to any reader by finding the universal in the process of growing up and Beard’s story, to me, did just that. She manages to focus on the important detail with sharpness that teenagers don’t really have but sense, like in this favorite passage of mine: “It was a game of musical boys and I’m the one left standing.”
The story of becoming a girl will implicitly involve the story of the great Other: boys. Jo reaches the stage in life when boys are no longer playing companions: instead they become trophies on the popularity ladder. They are mysterious, exciting, but mostly interchangeable. While she “yearns” for boys, the real drama happens between girls. We get to know the narrator as a half of a duo, and, by her own definition, the less important half. Her friend, Felicia (we know her name and even how you can ridicule it but we have to infer the narrator’s name) is the one Jo considers important. Naturally, then, Jo’s growth will have to happen in opposition to Felicia and only after a period of dissent can they be reunited in the satisfying ending of the story. Ah, best girl friends like the ones from Zanesville have always been the stuff of the teen girl mythos: the friend that accepts you with all your weirdness, who knows you and your insane family, who has always been there and will come when you need her in the dark park. Now, I never had friends like that: the girls I grew up with were more the Carrie kind, except less enterprising and I don’t miss them one bit. But the less you know something good, the more its literary, unrealistic version will appeal to you.
The main thing that Beard does right is the tone of the novel, with its subtle shifts and the mystery that lies just beneath it, never completely surfacing. In one passage the narrator is increasingly sure her father’s dead body is lying in the coal cellar and
the terror of this, even though eventually dispelled, stays with you like in a good horror story: I think adults too often forget how much terror even happy childhood includes for a child with imagination. Jo’s childhood and adolescence don’t come from a Disney movie: they are bitter-sweet at best, with the bitter part well emphasized. All the characters are flawed, Jo perhaps most of all. But the warmth with which Beard imbues her story makes you accept it as the truth of growing up as a girl, not covered in pink glitter but real: sometimes painful yet eventually survivable.