Page 45 Review by Stephen
Brilliant. But, before we begin, I must emphasise that everything written below excludes the last twenty-five pages. Each one is as magnificent as those which precede them but I never saw them coming, nor should you.
From the writer of Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month PLAIN JANES and its sequel JANES IN LOVE and drawn in part by the creator of SWALOW ME WHOLE, this is an exemplary Young Adult prose and graphic novel which teens will empathise with all too well and older readers will recognise with groans of hindsight. Falling in love in your early teens is one great big ball of hormonal confusion. Some of us don't even realise we've done it.
"Tessa couldn't understand the way things worked or why she felt so conflicted. She had a boyfriend. She felt that she should be happy, too."
Tessa is Lulu's older sister. A year ahead of her, Tessa was always the one Lulu looked up to in matters like boys, while Tessa found her limpet-like company just a little irksome. But now it's Tessa looking up to Lulu in height, receiving hand-me-down clothes and shoes. The biggest blow on the bruise, however, is that Lulu now knows more about boys - and one boy in particular, the sports hunk Charlie, whom Tessa's had her sights on for ages. Through a freak accident in a tent of carnival curiosities, Lulu and Charlie were thrust together and came out a couple. Tessa went in with the rarely glimpsed Jasper, the local weirdo who wears t-shirts she doesn't understand, and Tessa came out... confused. Unable to shake off not exactly her attraction to Charlie but what she perceives as her prior claim, she cannot help but feel jealous whenever Charlie and Lulu are together - and they are together, kissing forever in front of her. Then, as is traditional, it's time for him to come round for tea.
"Even though Charlie wasn't her boyfriend, Tessa was just as nervous as Lulu before he came over. How would her parents look to him? Would he think that her dad's long hair and piercings or her mother's sleeve tattoos were weird? Would her father, not a sports person at all, try to engage Charlie in conversation about things he didn't know about and look dumb? Would her mother go on and on about her rock tours with her riot grrrl band, bring out her guitar, play a few of the old songs? Would she put on an mp3 of her one college radio hit and hope that he recognised it?"
They don't. Nothing about this book is predictable. The parents are neither ridiculous nor oppressive. The sporty crowd doesn't bully Jasper. Lulu doesn't gloat and Tessa doesn't sulk. She is jealous, and the occasional unkind remark slips out uncontrollably before being instantly regretted, but this isn't your typical teen angst. There are no bad guys. Instead Tessa removes herself from time to time, slipping into the woods to explore a clandestine closeness she's kindled with Jasper, a naturally bright and instinctively tender young lad who's long been ostracised but who's not one for company anyway. Normally their time together is bright and full of imaginative whimsy, but here Tessa's distraught not about all the attention lavished on Lulu, but all the new clothes she's been bought now that she's bigger than Tessa while Tessa gets nothing but cast-offs at an age when she so desperately desires to look more attractive. And Jasper, bless him, does his best to console offering well reasoned solutions followed by
""Well, the shoes you're wearing now look really good. I like them."
Tessa was exasperated. She wondered why he couldn't understand. She cried harder. Jasper pulled her in close and kissed her all over, even her tears.
"Your tears taste sweet even though they are salty," Jasper said.
But Tessa didn't smile. So he made some goofy voices. First a robot. Then a dinosaur. Then a pirate. Then he bellowed like a wild beast.
And then Tessa couldn't help but smile. And smiling led to laughter. And laughing led to feeling better."
Sometimes reason simply doesn't cut the mustard; distractions work better by far.
All of which is dealt with in prose, beautifully, poignantly, delicately. At which point we come to my one slight reservation about the book which, surprisingly, is about the comic sequences interspersed between each chapter. These tell a far more surreal story. They're nightmare sequences in which Tessa's hair is a hissing mass of sentient snakes she tries to suppress with Lulu's headscarves. This is, quite obviously, a manifestation of Tessa's low self-esteem when it comes to her looks, and in particular her constantly curling hair, which she often compares unfavourably to Lulu's.
"But you're beautiful! Everyone loves you! I see the way they touch you. Take your shells! Comb your hair! No one can even stand to look at me."
"I can. But I won't be able to if you keep running away."
In and of themselves, they work brilliantly as self-conscious, anxiety dream sequences with the constant threat of exposure, fearing ridicule or rejection. My only problem is this: they're entirely at odds with the level of neurosis portrayed in the prose. The exchange above would have been brilliant in any other book, but at no point is there any danger of this happening, nor does either sibling perceive such a threat. Not to that extent anyway.
There is the constant threat of physical danger, I felt, alone in the woods or in the darkness of the carnival, but each time my fears were ill-founded. Such a relief. But we're really not going to be talking about the final few pages, exceptional as they are. We'll talk about those when you're done.