Book Review


By Rebecca Becker
Published: March 2008

Author: Marcella Prixley

It is no secret that middle school girls are sometimes mean and often irrepressibly evil. When adult writers try to write about this meanness, or about teenagers in general, they often get it wrong.

The dialogue sounds forced, the slang improbable, and the issues at hand cliched or unremarkable. (I remember reading a horrid book when I was in middle school called Maybe by Then I’ll Understand, about which the less said the better).

Alternatively, young adult literature often panders to its teen audience in the most cynical ways. Aimee Friedman’s South Beach is a good example. It tells the story of two sixteen-year old girls and their largely unsupervised spring break trip to South Beach, Florida.

The writer makes assumptions about teenage girls that might attract some readers but, in the process, alienates others, like girls who enjoy reading.

The fact that there is so much bad young adult literature is what makes the genre’s good voices so vital. And while Marcella Pixley’s short debut novel, Freak, might be about younger adolescents, its appeal is broad enough to interest older teenagers, and for that matter, adults, as well.

Freak tells the story of Miriam, a seventh grader, and Deborah, her older, more sophisticated, ninth grade sister.

Miriam is an uber-nerd: she reads the OED out loud, plays chess, writes poems in her diary named Clyde, and talks incessantly about Star Trek.

Deborah, by contrast, is stylish, feminine, and knows how to flirt; she is everything her younger sister is not, including a social climber. When Deborah tells Miriam she’s “such an alien, she means it; the two essentially have nothing in common.

Except, maybe, their taste in boys: when Artie, a family friend and cool high school senior, comes to live with the family, the sisters spar over him and vie for his attention. Predictably, Miriam fights a losing battle. To make matters worse, kids at school (“the watermelon girls, so-called because of the scent that follows them everywhere they go) decide to pick on her. Teasing quickly becomes harassment.

Pixley, who teaches middle school English, demonstrates her keen eye for observation and aptly portrays these girls.

She describes packs of popular girls as a “hive of perfect bodies packed into blue jeans. The prettiest girl in the pack of seventh graders, Jenny, is attractive because she has a woman’s body, because she wears mini-skirts and low-cut tank tops, and her legs and arms are so skinny that you can see the outline of her bones.

While she is not beautiful, she exudes confidence and sexuality. Pixley’s prose is also funny. Miriam is unpopular not because “she talks to her fingers like Bonnie Trotsky, but because she prefers to look at her hair under a microscope while other girls brush theirs.

Pixley’s characters also feel familiar; Deborah and Miriam’s father “is a little shaggier than other fathers, rides his bike to work because there are too many cars on the road, has a compost heap in the backyard, and refuses to get cable television. The other local parents are not quite so crunchy, which adds to Miriam’s sense of alienation from her peers.

One of the novel’s strengths is that Pixley avoids sugar-coating the experience of middle school. For example, once the “watermelon girls find out about Miriam’s crush on an older high school boy, they are unrelenting in their cruelty.

Most of the students about whom Pixley writes seem largely unsupervised; they attend parties, drink, and have sex. There is nothing tasteless or graphic here, just matter-of-fact: older high school boys congregate around kegs; a living room transforms into a make-out room.

And Jenny, the popular girl, drinks more and more, and appears to grow younger in the process ‘€ By nine o’clock she was ten years old, her skinny shoulders pressed back. By nine-fifteen she was seven or eight. She wasn’t smiling anymore; her eyes dull as pennies. If there’s a ‘Ëœmessage’ in Pixley’s writing, it’s a warning to girls about how one walks, or crosses, the line between girlhood and womanhood. Pixley wisely chooses, however, not to elaborate on the subject.

One of the most striking things about Freak is the absence of parental supervision.

Miriam’s dad is an academic and her mom is an artist, but their doors are often closed to her, both literally and figuratively.

Miriam’s mom is oblivious to her troubles at school; when Miriam asks her mom about her favorite painting, the one she thinks of is Child in the Rain. Her mom tells her that it is a self-portrait of the artist as a child.

And her father is naive. When Deborah claims that she’s studying at Jenny’s house on a Friday night, he is excited that she has decided to take her academic work more seriously.

Both girls need help navigating the complex waters of middle and high school. Their parents are consistently emotionally unavailable, for reasons which Pixley chooses not to fully explain. When I talk to students about social hierarchies at Newton South, they often claim that none really exist, that it is more of a middle school institution and that the playing field is more level by high school.

If there is one thing possible to salvage from the perils of early adolescence, Pixley, a Newton South graduate herself, suggests it might be a good story. By the end of the novel, Deborah’s precocious sexuality (she is only in ninth grade) begins to wear thin; I became tired of Pixley’s descriptions of her lithe frame and graceful neck.

Ultimately, however, Miriam’s grace and chutzpah save the day, and her experience transforms her. One of the best kept secrets of adolescence is that the kids who seem the most hapless and nerdy in middle and high school often become the most interesting and successful adults. If Miriam appears in subsequent novels (and I hope she does), she will undoubtedly grow into an even more complex and intriguing character.

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