I’ve just started a class on Young Adult fiction and Forever, identified as a ‘classic,’ is one of the first assigned readings. This is, I believe, my first Judy Blume novel. I was aware of Are You There, God? and other Blume novels, but don’t think I ever actually read one. And I have to say, after reading this one, I kind of love Judy Blume. She’s so straightforward and educationally-minded, while still really getting the blushing, bursting, totally obsessive quality of teenage love, which she regards (very practically) as fleeting, but still treats in a completely endearing manner. Some highlights and observations:
1. Right off the bat: the male character (Michael) names his penis. Names it Ralph, to be precise. Both he and Katherine (the narrator) speak to it in the third person. This is endlessly amusing, if still a little creepy, but totally cracked me up while I was reading it on the train. For instance:
“Katherine…I’d like you to meet Ralph…Ralph, this is Katherine. She’s a very good friend of mine.” [scene continues, yada yada:] Katherine: “‘Did I do okay…considering my lack of experience?’ He laughed, then put his arms around me. ‘You did just fine…Ralph liked it a lot.'”
2. Judy Blume loves Planned Parenthood. Katherine’s grandmother is described as being “busy with politics and Planned Parenthood and NOW,” and there is a whole, extensive scene in which Katherine secretly (although not ashamedly–which is important) goes to a Planned Parenthood in New York City to get birth control after she has sex the first time. The whole scene is played very educationally and step-by-step. First, you make the appointment, then the nice lady on the phone confirms that you don’t need parental consent. Then you see a counselor, then you have your pelvic exam and the doctor shows you your cervix in a mirror because “it’s a good idea to become familiar with your body,” and then you leave with the pill. It’s frank, but encouraging, and feels much a scene that was written in the 1970s–which it was. The doctor doesn’t ask Katherine if she takes intravenous drugs, doesn’t tell her outright that she should get tested for gonorrhea because her boyfriend is cheating on her (as has recently happened to a friend of mine).
In other words, this is still the first real phase of optimistic sexual liberation and education, and, as Judy (we’ve just now gotten on a first name basis, she and I) points out in her updated author’s note, “When I wrote Forever in the mid-seventies, sexual responsibility meant preventing unwanted pregnancy. Today, sexual responsibility also means preventing sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, which can kill you.”
3. Both Katherine and Michael seem to be rather flat as characters—you know things about them (she doesn’t like hot dogs, he is a qualified ski instructor)—without really knowing much about their motivations, goals, history, etc. But this actually seems to work in the book’s favor in two main ways. For one, these characters are teenagers and haven’t known each other for very long at all. It makes sense that they don’t actually know that much about each other, but rather, are aware of sort of broad qualities that the other person has. So this vagueness actually fits the age group rather well. Secondly, by leaving Katherine rather hazily drawn, the reader can more easily identify with one of them, putting herself in Katherine’s place and imagining how she might react herself.
4. One of the things that the book (through the voice of the adult characters) takes the most issue with is not the idea that Katherine is having sex, but rather that she has committed herself to one boyfriend. People talk of her being “tied down to one boy” and tell her that “forever’s one hell of a long time for a kid like you.” Katherine’s parents send her away to summer camp in part to separate her from Michael. I find this fascinating when you compare this stance with the one laid out in Twilight, for instance, which specifically creates an eternal love between the protagonist and her (eternal) boyfriend. I have not yet come to a conclusion about what this means about a change in adult/public attitudes towards teenage relationships and/or love, but again, it’s fascinating.
5. Minor irritant. The constant, perpetual ellipses. I know–these are even part of the book’s title (it’s actually Forever… but I’ve been to lazy to write it out). And I get that this both suggests a love without ending and also poses a question (Forever?). But seriously, these characters–of all ages, in all circumstances–cannot speak without trailing off at every given moment. The pages are literally peppered with ellipses and it’s visually annoying. If it were only during moments where characters feel awkward and confused, that would be one thing, but it’s seriously out of control. After awhile, I compulsively started reading them as “dot dot dot” in my head.
Anyway, I really got a kick out of this hippie, sexually responsible, doe-eyed romance that (gasp!) ends so soon after it begins, even though the characters have sworn up and down for many, many days, to love each other For-Ev-Er. I leave you with a quote:
“We kissed one more time and then he touched my face gently and said, ‘I love you, Katherine. I really mean it…I love you.’
I could have said it back to him right away. I was thinking it all along. I was thinking, I love you, Michael. But can you love someone you’ve seen just nineteen times in your life?”
Aw. I love you, Judy.