Thursday, January 28, 2021

Book Review: A Place to Come Back To (1984) and The Love of Friends (1997) by Nancy Bond

A Place To Come Back To and The Love of Friends are the sequels to The Best of Enemies (1978). In book two, A Place To Come Back To, Charlotte, now a teenager, struggles to help her friend Oliver when the death of his great uncle threatens the life he has established for himself in Concord. Charlotte tries to be helpful, but her naivete surrounding family dysfunction frustrates Oliver and strains their relationship. In book three, The Love of Friends, Oliver once again introduces a stressful situation by having Charlotte come to visit him in London without his parents' knowledge. As they masquerade as adults and take a secret side journey to Scotland, Oliver meets with an old friend of his great-uncle (a character the reader has previously met in book one) and Charlotte tries to advise a young woman who has recently discovered she is pregnant.

While I very much enjoy the way Nancy Bond writes, the second book was largely a let-down after the excellence of the first one. Oliver is endlessly frustrating and depressing to spend time with, and though I completely understood Charlotte's lack of perspective about his emotional demands on her, and even his inability to process his grief, it still drove me nuts that he was constantly so selfish and that she never seemed to be bothered enough to say anything. The second book ended on such a sad and uncertain note, however, that there was no way I wasn't going to read the last one. 

Unfortunately, the third book suffers from the same frustrating issues, just on another continent. I am usually not much for books whose sole purpose is to empower girls because they come across as preachy, but Charlotte is so passive and there is so little evidence that she ever figures out how to stand up for herself in her weird friendship with Oliver, that I was almost desperate for a girl power message. Somehow, too, the third book is suddenly very concerned with sneaking in more progressive content, including a gay couple and the possibility of an abortion. These things have no bearing at all on Charlotte or Oliver, so they read like gratuitous pandering to trends in the greater culture in the late '90s. (And this doesn't make much sense, since the first book was published in 1978 and only about three years pass from book one to book three.) The British setting was fun, but all the emotional baggage weighs down the book as a whole. 

Overall, these two books reminded me a lot of Madeleine L'Engle's books about Vicky Austin and Zachary Gray.  The writing is great, but sometimes I had to wonder what the point of this friendship was. The whimsy and mystery of The Best of Enemies is just totally missing from these sequels, and I finished the series feeling more depressed than hopeful for these characters. We own all three books now, so we may hang onto them, but truly the only one I would be likely to give to my kids to actually read is that first book. 

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