Annie on My Mind, a young adult novel by Nancy Garden, published in 1982, tells the story of a romance between high-school seniors Eliza (Liza) Winthrop, student council president at an educationally-high-quality but rather uptight private school, and Annie Kenyon, start music student of a tough inner-city school who is determined to avoid being a part of the school’s largely delinquent culture.
We meet Liza as a college freshman, as she decides that she must mentally re-hash her romance with Annie (hence the title, or so I assume), to finally come to terms with what happened and with being most likely (gay). Liza’s memories serve as a framing device, so we see the girls’ whimsical first meeting (when Annie gets Liza’s attention with her public singing and playfulness); their quick attachment to each other and growing bond (as they entertain themselves and each other by visiting New York City’s parks and cultural institutions); their realization that they have something beyond a “normal” friendship; and the development – not without awkwardness – of a physical relationship, culminating in a humiliating “outing” and, for Liza, the threat of disgrace and possible expulsion from school. (The immediate, concrete consequences for Annie are not made as clear).
Garden, who passed away during the summer of 2014, was herself a lesbian in a 45-year relationship, and has stated that she wrote the book because, growing up, there were too few books where lesbians were not killed off or “cured.” This book is remembered as one of the first to treat a lesbian relationship as normal love to be celebrated, and probably THE first in the YA genre.
Books have a way of seeping into me until I’m almost living with the characters’ issues. This has been called the “emotional sieve” effect by other Aspies, but I like to call myself an “emotional chameleon.” And this book produces that effect more so than most.
At the same time (and I recognize the contradiction), I think this is a good book to discuss to showcase the many relationship issues that I cannot truly empathize with, due to my different social motivation (and note I say “different” rather than “lack of.”)
In particular, I don’t think I really understand the struggle that many people experience when they discover they’re attracted to another of the same sex. That is, I can’t understand the degree of the struggle and how (or why) it is so life-defining and sometimes lifelong, for so many people.
The links here are some of the (few) places on the Internet featuring Garden and/or this book.
Facebook page for the book itself (not clear who started or is managing it)
Annie works on the Archive of Our Own fanwork site (just about the only fanfiction out there.)
What will follows will be questions and observations for discussion – which I plan to keep adding to. Since it is not possible to create a comment section for each one, if you post a comment, it would be very helpful to include the number I have assigned.
The above sites also have points for discussion.
- Closet Metaphor
It is interesting that nowhere in this book are the terms “coming out” or the metaphor of a closet used – as metaphors, that is. Presumably those terms had not been popularized at the time. But at one point, Liza, realizing they are going to be caught, hopes Annie will “hide in the closet or something.” It probably wasn’t intended by Garden as a pun, but would no doubt get laughs if the book or any adaptation were read or performed to a modern audience.
2. Traumatized into Non-Contact?
When we first meet Liza, she is in her MIT dorm room attempting to write notes for her architectural studies, but in fact writing, “It’s raining, Annie,” as what is supposed to be part of a letter to Annie, who is studying music at Berkeley, in California. (This is happening in, at the latest, 1982.) Liza then laments that she “can’t” send this or any other letter to Annie – in fact, has not written to Annie, or rather, answered Annie letters, since “the second week of music camp,” apparently due to the traumatic effects of discovering her lesbian nature and being publicly outed (and suspended, and subject to an expulsion hearing, at the end of the senior year of high school.)
It will transpire that it is now close to Christmas vacation, and Annie departed for Berkeley, California, at some time early in the summer, to serve as counselor at a summer “music camp.” At some point in her musings, Liza actually reflects that she has gone six months without writing.
Annie has finally written that she intends to stop writing and wait for Liza to make the next move. It is at this point Liza decides she needs to go over everything again, and sort it out, and that is how we get to see the story of their relationship.
While we will see that Liza’s parents were disturbed by the idea that she could be gay, and while what ultimately happens between both girls and their families is left kind of ambiguous – another possible point for discussion – we are not told of either girl’s family outright forbidding contact between them.
It seems to be conventional wisdom that most high school relationships don’t survive years at college far apart – the parties involved drift apart, or “get over each other” or “cool off.” Not keeping in touch is usually the beginning of this. But we are supposed to believe that Liza is not “cooling off” and is not just too busy to keep up with anyone from back home. Rather, she is obsessing over Annie but paralyzed by angst over being gay and everything that happened as a result.
Not being very versed in relationships, I am curious about others’ take on whether Liza’s “inability” to keep up correspondence with Annie seems like a sympathetic, understandable, or natural response to what she has been through, or a phase to be expected in the “coming out” process.
Elsewhere, it is generally agreed by those who give relationship advice that a lack of contact is the ultimate “not that into you” signal, and/or a cowardly and “low” form of breaking up. Dear Abby tells the woman in the third letter here that her fiance’s not answering her letters means the engagement is over.
Everyone agrees this woman’s online “boyfriend’s” three-month silence means he has dropped her and never cared that much to begin with. (Personally, I think by not directly breaking things off, he keeps his options open, though you can still argue that’s worse.)
And everyone in this thread agrees a woman’s insistence that a man avoids her to fear of the strength of his feelings for her is a delusion, and one poster actually says “staying away due to fear of the emotions doesn’t happen.”
But isn’t that precisely what Liza’s doing? What make it different? In that last of the three examples, the boyfriend is known to be seeing other women; in the other two, we can’t be sure. And we know that Liza isn’t seeing anyone else, Annie theoretically doesn’t have a way to know that (although she doesn’t really appear concerned about that.)
Further, it is made clear through Liza’s memories that the really frightening part of their involvement with each other was the physical. But that means that a long-distance relationship should feel safer.
Are we more willing to accept someone who has just discovered she is gay being afraid of her feelings? (All of the examples above deal with hetero relationships.) Did we accept less frequent contact before the age of email, social media, and text? Or is this just a romance-novel thing?
And, the trauma paralyzing Liza seems to have been something of a delayed reaction.
One of the last things Liza remembers is a meeting she and Annie have with two of her teachers, (also recently exposed as lesbians), who advise the younger couple, “Don’t let ignorance win. Let love.”
For us, this speech operates as the ending, the resolution, the thing that gives Liza her closure and and gets her to the point where she can get back in contact with Annie. But in fact, in Liza’s life, the conversation happened before Liza left for MIT, during the last month of high school, in the immediate aftermath of the trial (and therefore, before the book started for us.) Liza does not really pull away from Annie right after her “trial” – when she is back at school after the suspension she defends the relationship to her one-time friend, Sally, and then she and Annie go to talk things out with the lesbian teachers.
We don’t see Liza and and Annie saying good-bye or know how they left things when they first departed for college, but we know that Liza actually wrote to Annie once soon after that, before she became so consumed with angst that she couldn’t write. It is as if conversation with the teachers really didn’t help her when it happened, but remembering it later eventually does?
Is it like a post-traumatic thing, and contact with Annie triggers it? Do we not expect rationality where these types of feelings are concerned?
3.) The months of silence easily forgiven
I did have an exchange on social media who suggested that the ending is open enough to interpretation that Annie could reject a reunion – say that Liza missed her chance. Based on interviews with Garden (there is an interview included in a special edition of the book), that is clearly not Garden’s interpretation. And the ending itself doesn’t seem that way: Liza calls Annie at the end, and Annie seems thrilled to hear from her, and even says she was trying to work up the nerve to call and ask if they could get together during the upcoming holiday. She doesn’t give Liza any grief about the months without contact, and when Liza kind of starts to try to apologize, Annie says something like, “I know,” or “I understand.”
Realistically, should the person who had written, and whose letters had not been answered, to be smarting from that, and for that to become a new issue for the couple to work through?
I’m reminded of the complaint about male writers who write their fantasy women or who write women as plot devices to make a male hero’s life better – Annie has plenty of personality, enough not to be just a plot device, but in some ways, she seems like a fantasy girl, particularly in this way she seems to be waiting by the phone for six months while Liza is sorting things out.
At earlier times we saw her more frustrated with Liza’s hesitations. Maybe the answer to her understanding attitude at the end is that her character development is less about learning to accept herself as gay – something she had kind of done before they met – and more about coming to better understand why and how Liza is struggling and to understand that the struggling doesn’t amount to Liza rejecting her?
4.) An oversimplified coming-out process?
Because Annie is something like too good to be true – she seems very fun and fascinating – and because their lives look like so much fun – I have trouble empathizing with Liza’s struggle – or, more accurately, I don’t get pulling away from, ignoring, or avoiding Annie as a solution.
But I also have a feeling that Liza’s coming-out process may be unrealistically short and oversimplified. At the end she tells Annie she is “free now,” (meaning, over fretting about being gay, referencing the line about the truth setting one free.) She has gotten there in either six months, (if we go from spring break and her near-expulsion through the holiday at the end of the book), or a year (if we go from the girls’ first meeting to the end.) I suspect it has taken many real people longer than that, particularly in that era. In this letter, a woman mentions her daughter “sorting out” her sexual orientation for two years.
Also, the timeline of Liza’s “sorting out” process is a bit fuzzy. We are told it is almost Christmas and she hasn’t written to Annie for six months, and she feels like “going over it all again” is the solution. Has she been remembering, multiple times throughout the semester, or has she repressed the memories up until the remembering that we see, that makes up the story? If the latter, does she do all of that at one time? It makes her resolving everything seems kind of sudden and abrupt.
She also doesn’t do anything else about it other than the remembering – she never, for instance, tries to date a guy. There is a point earlier in the book where Annie offers to discontinue the relationship to spare Liza the emotional turmoil, after confessing that she (Annie) once attempted a relationship with a boy. Liza decides at that point that not seeing Annie would be “as ridiculous as Annie’s experiment with the boy.” That seems to mean she’s not going to try not to be in love with Annie, even though she continues fretting.
5. Effect of Distance
On the flip side of #2 and #3, if it is natural for high school sweethearts to drift apart or lose interest in each other during college anyway, is the very emotional turmoil which seems to threaten the relationship, in fact, what keeps Liza and Annie obsessing, and therefore clinging, at a time when it might have been more natural to move on?
6. Is homophobia the worst threat in the real world?
Liza and Annie are treated like their falling in love is some kind of disorder, and we see their struggle not to internalize that definitely complicating, and straining, their relationship. Because of that, the premise is that it’s more stressful on them than a boy and girl falling in love for the first time.
On the other hand, many issues that, in the real world, couples have to agree about, or compromise about, or else have problems with – don’t come Liza and Annie’s way yet – like sharing living expenses, or balancing their jobs with time together. Liza is shown to be very driven in her studies. If they move in together after college, and Liza has a job with an architecture firm, and she becomes very obsessive about making a good impression and getting ahead, and that stresses her, will Annie be good at supporting her through that stress? Or will Annie complain that Liza is no longer the fun Liza she fell in love with, or feel neglected?
7) The Timeline
Liza and Annie meet in November, and have become physical by spring break of the same academic year. Along the way, Liza describes what purport to be phases of the relationship – but they all seem to last a few weeks to a month at most.
They discuss whether they are more than friends within a few weeks of meeting, and are exchanging rings by Christmas. Liza describe herself as happily in love “all that winter,” but at some point the honeymoon-ish phase segues into a rough period when they make awkward attempts to get more intimate, and the awkwardness and fear lead them to fight, with what Liza describes as their worst fight happening in March. After that, they sort of “own” their fears and discuss them, and agree they’re not ready. Actually, this is kind of three or four phases within one – because there’s a phase of Annie trying for more intimacy and Liza running away from it, then a phase when the reverse happens, and then a phase when they fight, and then a phase when they’ve agreed they’re not ready and are simply not raising the issue, yet not fighting. Then, over spring break – it is not clear whether that is late March or April – they become intimate. After two weeks, they are caught, and Liza is in trouble at school, and she says “the old barriers were back” (meaning the fears that cause them to pull away or snap at each other).
I think if I had to pick my single biggest problem with the book, it is this timeline. First, it’s confusing – it is hard to tell where phase ends and another begins. Second, the good times, the times when they felt giddy with love or happy to be together, feel the most rushed, with the most time being devoted to the bad, angsty stuff. Even the scenes where intimacy takes place, or they are clearly feeling sexually attracted to each other, convey feelings of fretting more than of pleasure. So it’s hard to see (or feel) them being happy in the relationship enough to want to fight for it. If a reader wants to vicariously experience the giddy-in-love feel, or titillation, (as I suspect many readers of romances do), it’s hard to do with this book.
Third, we’re being asked to champion the relationship, and to believe that anyone who is against it is motivated by homophobia. But it is not homophobic to be sceptical about whether a relationship just a few months old will last. Teens in love wouldn’t want to hear that, but many well-meaning parents and teachers would say it, to opposite-sex couples as well, especially if sex was involved. The adults in Liza and Annie’s lives don’t say it – they are fixated on the sexual orientation – but if they had, it would be a sort of legitimate concern, not homophobic.
Finally, I don’t think a whirlwind romance goes along well with the premise that coming out – and truly embracing a lesbian relationship – is a struggle. The actual pace at which the relationship moves contradicts Liza’s narration about how she, or they, held back.
8.) Women’s Issues
I was gratified that Jackie Horne featured this book on her Romance Novels for Feminists blog (see above). As I have written, I worry about whether what I like is feminist enough – and I have gone back and forth: is a lesbian story inherently more feminist, because their greatest emotional needs and concerns are focused on other women, not on men, or is the book still depicting girls too focused on relationships and dependent on other people?
Given that neither really has other friends and Annie, at least, is implied to be a bit distant from her family, emotionally, are they really together because they are perfect for each other and secure enough not to bother with people who aren’t right for them? Or are they lonely and isolated and clinging to each other to overcompensate? I really don’t see them as depressed or in love with the idea of falling in love before they meet – they seem focused on career goals and independent, and even ok with being different from their other peers. Further, Liza embraces her love of and talent for architecture with NO worries about whether it’s “acceptable” for girls to be smart or be in “technical” fields. (Architecture qualifies as what, today, is called a “STEM”, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, career.)
But when they come to believe they are “two halves of a whole” after being independent for so long – it is treated as a good thing.
9) The Physical Relationship – Romanticizing or Legitimizing High-School Sex?
Horne (see #8) refers to the literary device (she uses the word “trope”) of a character (presumably usually a woman) being punished for “illicit” sex. Punishment comes blatantly in the form of a trial and near-expulsion for Liza, but even before that happens, just about everything negative that happens to this relationship, anything that could be called “bad times” in the relationship sense, seems to stem from the physical aspect.
In the early days of the relationship, Liza and Annie feel like they’re so in sync they can communicate without words and believe they are two halves of a whole. When the question of having a more physically intimate relationship is in the air, they want it but are scared as well as clumsy (Annie at one point refers to not “wanting the same thing at the same time”) and this causes the special connection they think they have to deteriorate, and they become tense and awkward with each other, snap at each other, and have more difficulty talking about the important stuff.
The stance of either Liza or Garden seems to be that the fear and awkwardness are a hang-up that they need to get over. The implication seems to be that if they have a physical relationship, then there really will be no denying that they are gay, so the readiness or not to be intimate is a measure of much progress they’ve made toward accepting their orientations.
But I grew up learning (from the adults actually in my life and exposure to advice columns) that 1) you SHOULD be afraid to, and hold back from, having sex when you’re a teenager and still in high school, 2) you should only be intimate with someone you know really well, and that means longer than three or four months (Liza and Annie meet in November and seem to be attempting intimacy by February or March); and 3) as Dear Abby has put it, “if you can’t talk about [sex], you shouldn’t do it” (always with a suggestion that teenagers aren’t mature enough to abide by #2 and #3).
Neither Liza and Annie themselves, nor the adults, suggest that maybe they should have waited just to be a little older, or to know each other better. Liza’s parents never mention STD’s, or the emotional effects of having sex too young; the sex, to them, is mostly a barometer of how gay Liza is. In my world, the interrogation would have been “Are you sexually active?”; Liza’s parents essentially ask, “Did you go far enough that it counts as being gay?” We learn that Ms. Widmore and Ms. Stevenson have been a couple since their teens, and they emphasize that it’s not bad or sick to be gay and that love should win out over ignorance. The one person who clearly says teenage boys and girls shouldn’t have sex with each other either – the principal – is treated as the villain. So when the lesbian teachers say, “Don’t let other people’s ignorance define your relationship” it almost sounds, in context, as though they are also rebuking those who oppose teen sex, as well as homophobes. I could see hetero teen couples taking away from this book that it’s ok to have sex at their young ages, if they love each other enough.
Of course, one of the biggest reasons to worry about teen heterosex – the risk of making a baby that will get in the way of further education – isn’t an issue when two girls are involved.
Garden seems to attempt to espouse something close to the Dear Abby maxim about learning to communicate about sex – we are led to believe that Liza and Annie iron out the communication issue, become better at talking about it, and both feel ready, before they actually do it. But the whole issue feels rushed , as they move from having-a-rough-patch-because-they-are-afraid to agreeing-they’re-not-ready to ready between (it seems) February and spring break (see #7 above).
And even during the part that covers spring break – when they are having a romantic getaway at the house every day – and presumably making love every day, the mood and emotions invoked are less pleasure, titillation, gratification of desire, or heightened love and closeness than fretting and angst over being gay – now increased because they’ve taken it to another level. That seems to be a strain on the relationship, so it doesn’t feel like taking the relationship to this new level has brought them closer. Here, I may have been”spoiled” due to the fact that, before reading Annie, most of the same-sex fiction I had read was fanfiction about other pop culture couples, which has a tendency to emphasize the uncomplicated romantic moments, and the characters’ enjoyment of them.
Liza and Annie’s encounters are not described explicitly – I believe a word that is a body part is used only once – during the awkward stage when Annie is trying initiate an intimacy and Liza pulls away. The lack of explicit description, especially when combined with their fears, bring a sense that they are emotional and romantic, even refined, in their attitude toward sex: for Liza it is about Annie and for Annie it is about Liza. It’s not just about wanting to have sex, or even wanting “a special someone.” Their approaching sex with a sense of awe, mystery, and even fear makes a nice contrast from many works where characters are casual or even jaded about love and sex, even at that young of an age.
Jackie Horne reproduces the sex scenes; such as they are, on her blog entry. Earlier, when Annie confesses that she, not long before meeting Liza, “tried to prove [she] wasn’t” gay, “with a boy,” I felt there was room for interpretation as to how far she went, but the narration of Liza and Annie’s physical relationship (I think) makes both girls sound equally inexperienced – Annie doesn’t appear to know any better what she is doing than Liza does herself.
The non-explicitness also leaves room for interpretation as to what they have actually done and when; a classmate of Liza’s actually asks her about this, and, of course, Liza is rendered speechless. To the extent people at that time were ignorant about lesbian relationships and Garden wanted to educate them, perhaps describing this in more detail would have been educational.
There are very few Annie fanfics and I have found only one that focuses on intimacy taking place during the Christmas reunion that is planned at the end of the book. In that one, there is still one intimate thing left for them to experiment with. I like that idea, but I’m not sure it’s what Garden intended – I think her narration is meant to imply that over spring break they went as far as they could.
10). The Physical Relationship – Not Idealized
Yet, even as my little-girl-facts-of-life lessons were kicking in, reminding me that Liza and Annie should abstain because they’re high school students (and for the other reasons in #9, above), I was wishing that Liza and Annie weren’t experiencing so much trouble with the intimacy and having problems as a result. I wanted Liza and Annie’s relationship to be pretty much perfect except for having to deal with homophobia. I wanted to see the development of a physical relationship be less awkward for two girls than it would have been for a male and female.
I know such awkwardness is probably realistic for inexperienced people, and Garden was probably going for some degree of realism so real-life lesbians could relate (and really, to be realistic the problem should have lasted longer) – but it occurred to me that if she wanted to cast a positive light on lesbian relationships, she missed an opportunity. She could have implied that:
1) because women aren’t conditioned to NOT communicate, the communication could be better than in a male-female relationship, and 2) women, especially if they’re friends first, have an understanding of each other’s needs and desires (physical and otherwise) beyond what people of opposite genders have.
11) “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” I: Liza and Annie’s Effects on Each Other
In many romances, one partner starts out very uptight, very conformist or very depressed, and other is free-spirited, and the free-spirited one (sometimes called a “blithe spirit” or a “manic pixie dream girl”) changes the other. Do you see either Liza or Annie having that effect on the other? Annie does coax Liza to do things like sing and play sword-fight in public, and after they’ve gotten to know each other and Liza has been exposed to Annie’s poor community and school, she decides she finds those interesting – whereas others from her school look down on inner city kids.
On the other hand, Liza tells us right off the bat she is different from everyone at her school – and seems ok with it. If anything, she becomes more uncomfortable with being different once the reason is that she’s gay. For that reason, it’s not clear that Annie makes her happier than she was before.
At the beginning, before Liza and Annie’s relationship really takes off, she introduces us to the girl at her school who is the closest thing she has to a best friend – Sally Jarrell. Liza likes Sally for being more individual than anyone else at school. Sally gets suspended for piercing other students’ ears (to be fair to the school, one student’s ear get infected) and Liza gets suspended as well…for not telling on Sally, in violation of a rule that students have to report each other for rule infractions. We learn that Liza, who has been elected to Student Council, has been speaking out against this rule for a long time.
Lesbian blogger Jill Guccini, in a tribute to Garden and the book, questioned the relevance of this episode of the book. I wonder if it is there to show us that Liza is an eccentric and a rebel in her own right, and is in this respect compatible with Annie, not necessarily in need of Annie’s influence to become more individualistic.
Some things that could be Annie loosening Liza up could also be seen as negative or even “corrupting”: after Liza first meets Annie, she leaves the museum without studying what she originally went there to study; she visits Annie’s school during the day(!); they drink wine during some of their dates (the drinking age in this era was 18, but they are not yet); Liza admits the relationship distracts her from the school’s fundraising campaign; and they get caught together precisely because she misses a fundraising campaign meeting and Sally and a homophobic teacher come looking for her. My parents, I am sure, would have been more worried about my devotion to school and goals eroding than about the gender of my love interest.
Does either change the other? Does Liza make Annie happier or more confident?
12) “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” II: Ms. Widmore and Ms. Stevenson
In #3 above I questioned whether Annie seems like the kind of character that feminist writers complain about – perfect from the man’s point of view and/or just there to make his life better. That might apply as well to Liza’s two lesbian teachers. Annie’s personality is developed; Ms. W and Ms. S may seem to exist just to help Liza and Annie become more comfortable with being gay and show them that lesbian relationships can endure – and the two older (mature) women are sacrificed – or their livelihood sacrificed – for Liza and Annie’s happy ending. And they are surprisingly quick to forgive Liza and Annie and go back to ensuring them that it’s ok to be gay. It’s not Liza and Annie’s fault others were homophobic, but it would be realistic and human for the teachers to feel like, “We wouldn’t have gotten fired if Liza and Annie hadn’t used our house and gotten caught.” They are also surprisingly blase about losing their jobs, or at least, not very scared about how they’re going to survive.
I don’t endorse firing or expelling anyone for being gay, but if you try to look through the eyes of the school administration and board: they caught Liza, not very dressed, with another girl, whereas all they really know about the two teachers is that they lived together and owned books about homosexuality! So why does the school board decide Liza had done nothing wrong but the teachers have to go? Do they decide (or perhaps, rationalize or convince themselves), that Liza only experimented with homosexuality because she came under the “corrupting” influence of either a lesbian house or two lesbian teachers in general? That’s kind of what Sally tells them.
13) Sally’s motives
Sally tells Liza that it’s really “sad” that Liza is gay, and she tries to encourage her to “overcome” it through mental health treatment. In that conversation, she sounds more innocently ignorant than viciously bigoted. But given that the whole school finds out Liza was caught with another girl, it seems like Sally must have spread the word.
Does Sally really think she’s helping Liza? Is she sucking up to the administration? Her attitude is particularly jarring because previously, Liza has admired her (and had more of a friendship with her than with anyone else at school) precisely because of what she perceives as Sally’s individuality. Is it possible that Sally is wrestling with her own sexuality? Or that she’s jealous of Liza’s sudden closeness with another girl, perhaps not wanting Liza in a romantic way but simply feeling she has lost her friend? (Having Asperger’s and not having had many friends, I know it is sometimes difficult for me to share the ones I do have with their other friends.)
14) The “cover up.”
Do you applaud Liza for managing to not get expelled, even though it seems to require either lying or passively going along with others’ mistaken assumptions? Do you feel like it amounts to “beating” the bad guys, or does it seem dishonest, or cowardly, or disrespectful to Annie or to the relationship? Or cruel to the teachers, who end up taking the fall? Liza was encouraged by her parents and others to leave the hearing before the interrogation of the teachers…and later she realizes she could have explained that the teachers didn’t make her gay…is she cowardly or otherwise at fault for not having insisted on that? Or was she justified, given what was at stake for her?
15) Annie’s Consequences
While I wouldn’t wish Liza’s expulsion hearing on anyone, it somehow feels unfair that Annie didn’t have to go through something similar.The Foster Academy powers-that-be don’t care about Annie; she almost doesn’t exist to them because she doesn’t go to Foster. That may be one way of showing how misplaced their motives are. (If, for example, they wanted to protect teenagers from the consequences of sex they should have cared about Annie, too.) And throughout the book the idea that Liza is more privileged is deconstructed; by the time of the trial we may feel Annie is the luckier one because her school doesn’t administer this kind of punishment.
Is this part of why the trial comes between them? If they had had to do through it together, would it have affected their relationship any differently?
On the other hand, Annie, who has seemed more comfortable than Liza with being gay throughout the book, suddenly becomes afraid to tell her parents about it, and the next time they visit teachers she says she “thought [she] would hate” the house the next time she saw it. That makes it sound like getting caught was traumatic for her too, even though we don’t see her punished in any concrete way…could she just mean that Liza pulling away in the weeks leading up to the trial devastated her, and that she associated the house with that?
I was also struck by Annie showing no desire to go to the hearing to support Liza. The teachers explicitly recommend against this, and it probably wouldn’t have helped the cause, but shouldn’t Annie have wanted to be around when “her girl” was going through something terrible? Does that point to a certain immaturity about the girls’ approach to love – they haven’t really learned the “being there for each other during bad times” part of real-world relationships? Or, once again, was Annie’s staying away from the hearing justifiable as a tactic for allowing Liza to be saved, or let off the hook?
16) Annie’s “Voice” – Part I
Even though I’ve said in the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” sections, #11 and #12, that Annie has enough personality to not be reduced to a “plot device,” I do think the girls are treated unequally from our point of view, in that it’s mainly Liza’s “voice” and feelings that we hear. There are many developments in the relationship that I would like to have seen from Annie’s point of view. What was Annie really thinking during the first semester of college when Liza was not writing to her? We know she decided to stop writing until Liza made a move of some kind, but did she ever seriously consider giving up on Liza or on the relationship? I’ve discussed in #2 and #3 above that it doesn’t seem like it. Did she meet any other lesbians at Berkeley? Today, she certainly would – Berkeley is in California and, I think, near San Francisco (which was one of the more gay-friendly cities in the country even in the 80s.) Or, did Annie herself welcome the time and “space” for sorting everything out? Did she have any sorting out of her own to do? Is this why she can be understanding of Liza’s failure to keep in touch?
I wonder the same about the shorter periods, during their senior year, when the internalized homophobia comes between them – after their big fight in March and during the week of Liza’s suspension. Why did Annie, who has all along seemed more comfortable with being gay than Liza, and who isn’t punished formally by her school or family for it, think she would “hate” the teachers’ house the next time she saw it? Was she traumatized by being discovered, or was she blaming the discovery, and therefore by extension, the house, on Liza’s retreat from her?
But I would also like to see some of their good times together through Annie’s eyes. Even during the better periods of the relationship – the winter before the intimacy issue arises, and during spring break when they are having romantic rendezvous every day – Liza’s fears about being gay seem to cast a shadow over everything, and the feelings that come across are more angst than pleasure. I think those times, seen from Annie’s POV, would feel happier and more “giddy in love.” I think there would be less “Oh my God, I’m gay” and more lovestruck (and possibly erotic) thoughts of Liza, and happy anticipation of her next meeting or encounter with Liza.
17) Annie’s Voice – Part II – The Encyclopedia and Book Scene
I can’t think of a better title. At one point, Liza experiences a “sexual explosion” inside her, which she claims is brought about by “just lying in bed, thinking about [Annie.]” I don’t know if Garden meant to imply that Liza had done something auto-erotic to herself to bring this about; if so, it is certainly not explicit. But the feelings prompt Liza to look up homosexuality in the encyclopedia – and what she finds is not comforting. It’s described, essentially, as a mental illness, but worse, there is no reference to love. Then she tells us “Annie put her arms around me and kissed me when I told her.” I am wondering if she means that she told Annie only about what she read in the encyclopedia – or did she also confess the “sexual explosion”? If the latter, I really want to know what that made Annie think and feel. I think it could have produced a giddy “Oh, yes, she feels that way about me, too!” feeling.
Annie also tries to improve Liza’s sexual identity self-image by presenting a book, Patience and Sarah, which seems to present a lesbian relationship in a more positive light. I say “seems” because we never really learn if Liza reads it, or if it indeed makes her feel better. (Liza also refers at one point to stories she has heard about lovers who are two halves of a whole, including some pairs who are both female – so, between this and Patience and Sarah, it does seem like some pro-lesbian literature was available to her, but it doesn’t seem to have helped her much.)
I would also very much like to know if Patience and Sarah is a real book. Garden never mentions it in the interview she gave (which is available in one edition of the book) about the lesbian literature that existed while she was growing up and pre-Annie.
18) Academic Standards of the Era
My mind was blown when Liza, right at the beginning of the book, felt she had “catching up” to do with fellow MIT students who had done internships with big firms the previous summer…which would have been the summer before they even started college! This is something I can relate to – I felt a little second-rate during college because I never got a really significant internship (partly because I couldn’t move away during the summer due to some developmental deficits). And even during high school I wondered what it said about me that I’d never had a paid job. (I got my first one the summer after senior year.) But I didn’t really think I was supposed to do internships “in my field” until college. Is this an era issue? The Sweet Valley High TV series also had high-school-junior Elizabeth doing a newspaper internship. (The books were written in the late 80s and early 90s.)
Further, Liza’s high school senior year project seems to involve, if not actually designing buildings, a rather sophisticated study of architecture. Does this speak to academic standards being higher at the time? Being higher at private schools? I did write a major English paper my senior year; and I studied literature, English, and liberal arts rather than the STEM fields, so maybe my basis for a comparison is faulty.
On the flip side, spring break lasts two weeks for both Liza and Annie – for me, it was always one week at most.
19) The Role-Play
Liza and Annie role-play as medieval characters (knights and ladies, with Liza usually being the former) both when the first meet and at times throughout their relationship. Was this typical for 17-year-olds at the time? Would it be seen, today, as too “young” of play for 17-year-olds, to the point that it might be a point in favor of diagnosing one or both of them with some kind of developmental delay? (I know that many of my interests, needs, and preoccupations are more consistent with typical people who are younger than actual age.)
Is the fact that it would not have been typical of 17-year-olds part of the point of Liza and Annie? That they are different? Does their doing this together show a similarity between them? Or does it show Annie loosening Liza up? Does the fact that Liza is usually the “knight” reflect a sort of stereotypical dynamic, of one half of a lesbian couple being more tomboy-ish or male-like than the other?
Is there significance to when they engage in this role play? One of my high school textbooks defined the defense mechanism of “regression” as “retreating to an earlier time that seems less threatening.” The example given was a woman having a fight with her husband and going to see her mother. I don’t know anyone who really does that outside of TV, but it is possible to see Liza and Annie’s role-play as a tactic for avoiding the frightening issues of growing up that the relationship throws at them. Some of Annie’s comments about it – “I don’t want to pretend anymore – I want to be real” and “There’s no need for us to pretend to be other people ever again” suggest this. Liza all but acknowledges this about the occasion when they role-play inside the teachers’ house (and of course, make a mess!) They are retreating to more child-like behavior because the scary, threatening prospect of the ultimate adult activity of intimacy is right there.
20) Musical and Entertainment Tastes
One of the more surprising things to me was to see two 17-year-old characters into such “high culture” and not into pop culture. They never go to the movies or the mall together, or talk about clothes, make-up, or celebrities. They are into art, architecture, and medieval lore as entertainment, and Annie’s musical studies are focused almost entirely on classical music. (I must admit – though it makes me sound terribly unsophisticated – that I had practically never heard of classical music that could be sung – I hear the phrase “classical music” and think of instrument-only symphonies.) Were teenagers more cultured in the 80s? While there were no ipods to download music onto, nor even CDs, there was certainly pop (and popular) music for every era, to which young people listened. You can find other older stories about teenagers that have them obsessing over such music – or the people who make it (Bye Bye Birdie, for example, and Elvis’ following in real life.) Is the “high culture” a New York thing? Or another way of showing how Liza and Annie are different from other teenagers?
21) The line between love and friendship
Liza’s mom tells her a story of her own romantic activity with a female friend, and concedes that some of that is normal (“the usual experimenting” she calls it.) In other books, written longer-ago, you can find examples of female friends being rather romantic with each other, and it’s seen as a normal stage of adolescence, but it is presumed that the natural order of things is to “grow out of it.” (Anne of Green Gables and her best friend Diana, for example – I even saw a clip from the TV series in which Anne, devastated because Diana has gotten engaged, rushes to see her, and they start enacting literary love scenes, and it includes rolling around on Diana’s bed.)
Do you think Garden was trying to imply that most female friendships have that potential to cross the line, if society were tolerant and/or the girls ignored society? (If so, the message would be stronger if Liza and Annie had a longer history of friendship prior to becoming lovers.)
Or, is it being hinted that Liza’s mom is not totally straight?
22) Things still unanswered after you finish the book.
There are a surprising number of these. First, what happened in between Liza’s return to school after her spring-break suspension and her departure for college? How were things between her and Annie during that month or so? How did they leave things when they left for college? Why did Liza write to Annie once – after they first departed – and then not write for six months, as opposed to having to back away and “sort things out” beginning immediately after the trial?
What was Annie’s relationship with the guy she met in California who, due to his desire to fly to New York, suggested switching plane tickets with Annie, thus allowing her to reunite with Liza at Christmas? What made her comfortable telling him something about herself and Liza, given that the last time before that that we saw her, she wasn’t yet ready to tell her own family? Indeed, we never do see Annie’s family finding out about the relationship, or learn if they did and how they reacted? It’s also not quite clear what Liza’s relationship with her parents is by the end of her senior year of high school and the beginning of her freshman year in college. Some summaries of the book say “ultimately, Liza’s parents support her.” We see them taking her side during the trial, but at that point they are still believing Liza’s lie that her relationship with Annie is not sexual. Mrs. Winthrop seems to realize, based on “testimony” at the trial, that Liza lied. And then, after that, we don’t Liza interacting with her parents.
Because the girls are going home for Christmas at all (and because we’ve come to see the Winthrops and the Kenyons to be basically good people) we know the girls probably aren’t disowned. But to me, the fact that they feel the need to meet in Cambridge, instead of just finding each other when they’re both in New York, suggests that they feel that their romantic time together needs to be away from their families.
I’m also not quite sure how the logistics of their travel work. I get that this was back before all the terrorism-paranoia, so perhaps it was possible for two people to exchange plane tickets. But presumably, Liza has only one ticket (plane or maybe train?) to take her from Cambridge to New York. She had to borrow quarters to make the final phone call to Annie, so, can the girls afford to buy a second plane or train ticket to take Annie from Cambridge to New York, along with Liza?
Liza told us during that during the “honeymoonish” phase of her relationship with Annie, the differences in their economic circumstances caused a bit of awkwardness – Liza almost always had spending money and Annie didn’t. So what caused Liza to have to borrow quarters to make a phone call at the end?
And, while I know it isn’t strictly relevant to the resolution, I really wanted to know more about the dream Liza had, about living with Annie, while in real life she was in trouble and suspended from school because of the relationship. I think it would have been nice to see them in a happy place together (even if it wasn’t real) as a respite from the real unhappiness.
23) What if it were today?
While watching a production of Les Miserables, after the scene in which Fantine, a female factory worker, is fired because the other workers learn of her illegitimate child (they demand her dismissal ostensibly because her sluttiness will contaminate them, in fact, the foreman fires her because she will NOT sleep with him), I heard the comment, “It makes me glad I live today.”
LGBT youth who have supportive friends and family or belong to LGBT groups might feel this way, but I do not. There is much that seems fun, romantic, glamorous, and to be aspired to about Liza and Annie’s lives and the world they live in. There don’t seem to be many problems other than homophobia, and there is no sense of the stress, overwork, and anxiety about life in general that we’re always seeing today.
And I wonder if the good pieces of Liza and Annie’s relationship happen today – and I wonder if they would even meet! Would a modern Liza be studying architecture replications on computers instead of frequenting actual museums? Would a modern Liza and Annie be focused on their phones or ipods at the museum, and not notice each other? With all communicating that people do by text and other technology today, would Liza and Annie’s conversations and time together seem so romantic? Would they still have the public transportation that got them to all their favorite places in New York? (If it was still New York, the answer to that one might be yes – but would they be using it? Would they mostly talk online or on Facebook.) Or, would a modern Liza and Annie have the kinds of minds of their own it would take to reject the technology culture? They don’t seem to use much of the electronic entertainment that did exist in their era – like TV or Walkmans.
Would they still have such romantic, refined attitudes toward love and hesitant attitudes toward sex? Many characters today seem jaded and casual about love and sex, and are much colder or cruder in their descriptions of it.
Liza is surprised to find herself even experiencing sexual arousal (see #17 above). I’m not a fan of people having sex too young, but for most of today’s teens, some kind of crush or sexual feeling happens earlier than age 17.
Garden herself said a girl of today might not worry so much about being gay, and might have a network of also-LGBT peers, or even start an LGBT youth group. (She pointed out that it might depend on where the book was set – there are some recently-written YA lesbian books with protagonists who are hiding, and they are set in small, rural towns. These protagonists seem to be more aware of being gay than Liza was to start with, but consciously hiding.)
One thing the traumatic discovery scene and resulting scandal do show is that people were being caught in embarrassing situations – and gossip about the same could spread – long before people were storing pictures on phones and computers that could be hacked.
24) “I saw Annie only twice”
Liza says this about the week of her suspension from school, offering it as a sign of the relationship being in a rough spot. I actually think seeing the same person, friend or love interest, twice in a week is a lot – or, I would have when I was in high school. But that might be my Asperger’s talking.