by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, 1968 (newly released 2015)
The pacing of the prologue-like first chapter aside, I slipped easily into the world of this book and would have liked to remain there longer. Our eighteen-year-old heroine is a girl who has been haphazardly raised by seven different parent-figures, including her divorced father and mother, while being dragged up and down across Europe. When in Europe, she is perceived to be an American; while in the States, she is seen as European. Life has not been gentle to her sense of self. Our story opens with her desperate attempt to hit the pause button and escape for a time from her own awkward identity before she is pushed into a college education she does not want. She will be a detective. In disguise.
The story is told with charm, wit, and perceptiveness. Our heroine may be filled with angst, but it is a self-aware, rather mature angst that does not exaggerate her own importance or sap her sense of humor. Many aspects of this late 1960’s world are delightful. The way trendy blue eye-shadow and a massive hair-do, well glued-up, are used by our heroine to create a mask is fun to read about. The way daily life is conducted with a complete lack of modern screens is striking. The characters’ moral universe are appealing. They assume that love leads to marriage and that playing with sexual contact in the form of kissing and making-out is to awaken a deep, heavy, potentially dangerous thing that robs people of the ability to properly evaluate their mutual compatibility.
Yet the overall message of the story left me feeling ambiguous. Essentially, it is a well-presented, charming manifestation of the idea that life’s purpose is to find and know oneself. This must be done as an individual, and involves escape from other people’s undue influence (in the imagery of the novel, one must “escape one’s own cage”--the personal fears and insecurities that hold one imprisoned--without the help of friends, parents, or true love, because no one can save us from ourselves). Marriage is something to consider only after both parties have first pursued their own dreams and discovered who they truly are. This message is all the more powerful because, rather than being assumed, it is discovered by the heroine in a slow and non-preachy way.
Unfortunately, the author forgets that the search for truth (including about oneself) is not best pursued only through individualism. Community and revealed beliefs are an important part of this process.
There is some truth to the book’s thesis that we can’t save each other and that we must find our own inner courage, and I am ready enough to accept the idea that these particular characters really did need to make the choices they did. The problem is that nowadays, it is assumed that everyone needs to make such choices.
My final feeling is that this would make a good book to read and discuss with one’s teenage daughters, but not perhaps to hand them and leave undiscussed.