Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review: First Love by Gay Head (1963)

One of our favorite weekend activities in the Fitzgerald household is to visit used bookstores. On a recent trip to one particular store, which is housed in an old library building and run by the Friends of the Library, I was browsing the shelves in the children’s section, when a spine jumped out at me. The book was a compact little paperback, First Love by Gay Head. I felt certain that I had seen this book before and had even been searching for it, and I eagerly flipped to the table of contents, hoping to recognize whatever it was that had initially grabbed my interest. Nothing looked familiar, but seeing that Maureen Daly and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had contributed stories, and knowing that the book was only 50 cents, I decided to take it home anyway. I have now finished reading all fourteen stories in the collection, and I still have no idea why I originally wanted it, but I’m glad I didn’t put it back on the shelf. The cover advertises “warm and glowing stories,” and indeed, this is what it contains.

Here are my descriptions of the fourteen stories:

  • Stardust by Virginia Laughlin is about a girl named Wendy who lives next door to two young men. Tod, the younger of the brothers, has very obvious feelings for Wendy, but she is lukewarm about him, and much more interested in Brian, whom she has idealized and worshipped from afar for a long time. It is only when it becomes clear that Brian is not available that Wendy comes back down to earth and begins to consider Tod’s merits. 
  • A Girl Called Charlie by William Kehoe introduces a quiet, thoughtful teen girl named Charlotte who has been invited on a date by the highly desirable Ridge Evans. Though her parents keep reminding her not to get too excited, as he may not be as interested as she is, Charlie can’t help but be intrigued. When Ridge makes it clear that he considers it boring and close-minded to “go steady” in high school, Charlie must decide whether she can put aside the urge to date exclusively in order to continue seeing him.
  • In Blue Valentine by Mary Gibbons, Angelo is sixteen years old, the oldest in his family, and the only boy. Because his mother died when he was ten, he has spent a lot of time filling the role of surrogate parent to his sisters, making him privy to the wants and needs of women in a way that is uncommon among the boys he knows. When it comes time to give his girlfriend, Ethel-Irene, a gift for Valentine’s Day, he chooses a sophisticated lacy nightgown, knowing the fine stitching will appeal to Ethel-Irene, but not realizing how such an adult gift will look to her parents. 
  • Jenny Lee of The Walnut Trees by Virginia Akin is at an age where adults are beginning to question her about her college plans. When her teacher, Mr. Applegarth asks her what she has in mind, she makes up an elaborate story about marrying a (non-existent) boyfriend, all because she is secretly in love with Mr. Applegarth and wants him to be jealous. Alas, it is Jenny who feels jealous - and disappointed - when it turns out that Mr. Applegarth is engaged to be married. 
  • While traveling by train in Once Upon a Pullman by Florence Jane Soman, nineteen-year-old William Fowler introduces himself to Emmy Smith, then engages her in conversation, occasionally using lines from the novel he is reading, which stars an overly confident air force hero. When they get off the train, William loses sight of Emmy, only to discover that she lost him on purpose in order to find out whether he was truly as pompous as he sounded.
  • EPICAC by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., is from his book, Welcome to the Monkey House. EPICAC is a computer who has near-human intelligence. The narrator of the story works with EPICAC alongside a woman named Pat, whom he wishes to marry. When he enlists EPICAC’s help wriinig love poems to impress Pat, the narrator inadvertently causes EPICAC to fall in love with her as well, thereby causing the computer to self-destruct. EPICAC appears again in Vonnegut’s 1952 novel, Player Piano.
  • Sixteen by Maureen Daly and Eighteen by Charlie Brodie tell two sides of the same story. The female lead of Daly’s story is affronted when she has a romantic time skating with an older boy who promises to call, only never to hear from him again. From the boy’s point of view, however, this time skating  was just a diversion while he dealt with some more complicated feelings about his girlfriend, Betty. 
  • Prelude by Lucile Vaughan Payne tells of Nancy Hollister, a popular girl with an interest in music appreciation who has a real chance of being elected prom queen, and the identity crisis which ensues when she finds herself attracted to Stephen Karoladis, the boy who cleans the music department at her school. 
  • In Tomboy by Gertrude Schweitzer, Frances, called Frankie, can’t see the need for romance when she could just as soon be out at the pond catching frogs with her friend Skeet. When she is forced to attend her cousin’s sixteenth birthday party, however, Frankie gets all dressed up and ends up meeting a boy. When she takes her new beau along with her to the pond,  she suddenly realizes that her interests are shifting and she might be ready to leave behind her childhood pastime. 
  • In Bittersweet by Arlene Hale, two young lovers, Leslie and Claude, who have broken up but have not yet told their families of their parting are thrust together for a reunion by their well-meaning parents. As they reminisce, it begins to look as though they might be able to rekindle old feelings, until Claude’s new girlfriend appears on the scene. 
  • Who is Sylvia? by Laura Nelson Baker is about Adam, who, despite warnings from his sister and his parents not to get involved with her, is head over heels for Sylvia Mauer. Sylvia is the granddaughter of a wealthy local, and though she is warm toward Adam, she is also very mysterious. In the end, Sylvia disappoints Adam by leaving town unannounced, leaving him to pretend to other girls that he has forgotten her. 
  • In Theme Song by Dave Grubb, Edith works behind the counter of a restaurant next to a filling station. One night, she meets a young serviceman who tells her of the girl who is waiting for him back home and requests to hear a particular song that makes him remember her. Though Edith knows the young man is spoken for, she can’t help but think of him whenever she hears that song. Later, when the young man is dumped, she helps him retrieve the song from the jukebox so he never has to hear it again. 
  • Tough Guy by Peter Brackett concludes the collection with a story about Byron Stover, a young man with a real chip on his shoulder, put there by his mouthy best friend Albert. Soon, though, Byron begins to realize how Albert may be holding him back from getting to know other people, especially girls like Nina.

I have grown weary of contemporary love stories for teens, mostly because they are usually highly sexual, and overly dramatic. This collection, by contrast, is grounded in real day-to-day problems and emotional connection, with no sexual content at all. (Half of them don’t even have any kissing!) There is a sincerity to each story, and also a maturity about topics like marriage and college that is entirely missing from so many contemporary romances. There are also several ambiguous and unhappy endings, whose realism I really appreciated.

First Love is similar to the Beverly Cleary First Love series, and to the later Betsy-Tacy books, especially Carney’s House Party. I’m not too crazy about the idea of my kids ever reading romances, but if it does have to happen someday, this is the type of book I will recommend.

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