Two books landed on my bedside table one right after the other. One was my book club’s pick for the month, and the other was an advanced copy of a soon-to-be released novel from a publisher wanting me to review it. Both of these stories had to do with teenagers. One was written from the teenager’s point of view. The other was written from the mother’s point of view. I immediately felt the universe was trying to tell me something. Since I have two teenage granddaughters and a third one soon to reach that status, I paid attention, looking for my lesson.
The Margot Affair by Sanaë Lemoine
Margot is the first-person narrator of this book set in Paris. She is seventeen years old and the daughter of Anouk Louve, a famous stage actress, and Bertrand Lapierre, the French Minister of Culture. Her parents are not married, but have been in an affair that has spanned two decades. Indeed “Father” as he is called throughout the book, is married and has two sons who are older than Margot. He has never publicly acknowledged the existence of Anouk or Margot. Wanting to change this fact, and maybe even get Father to leave his wife, Margot reveals her family secret to a journalist. Before long, she gives up all the family secrets to another journalist as they work together on Margot’s memoir.
Landslide by Susan Conley
Jill Archer is the first-person narrator of this book set in Maine. The story features Jill and her husband, Kit, and their sons, Charlie and Sam, ages 17 and 16. Kit comes from a long line of fishermen in Maine and as the story opens, he’s been away from home, fishing in Nova Scotia. He was already gone three months when there was an explosion on the boat, causing him to be airlifted to a hospital in that Canadian province. From this starting point, the author explores several main issues: the many challenges of the fishing industry, the many challenges of marriage (Kit is possibly having an affair), and the many challenges of raising teenagers.
The journey through the teen years felt like the main plotline to me. It was developed through countless conversations between mother and sons and through the mom’s processing of these dialogues as she deals with the boys’ sex lives, drug use, and school issues. I felt two things simultaneously as I read these sections: that I could not handle one more story and that I couldn’t wait to see what the boys would say next. These conversations were so real that I laughed and cried and ached through each one.
The books, side-by-side
It is interesting to note that both books feature a mostly-absent father and a mother whose very presence makes her the target for her child(ren)’s perceived problems with family life. But even if the dads were more present, the larger storyline would remain the same. One of the main tasks of the teen years is for the child to separate from the parents and that’s what we witness in both books albeit via different methodologies. Margot goes out with a bang. She drops her family secret like a bomb, blasting, exploding, destroying her previous life. Jill’s boys, on the other hand, use a gentler technique. One conversation/argument at a time, they chip away at life as they had known it.
As I try to explain it all to myself, I am reminded of a story from when my kids were young. We had a neighbor with kids the same age as my two older children. Their Andy and Christy played with my Scott and Shana all the time, mostly without strife. But then that family got transferred to another state, and in the days leading up to their move, Scott and Andy did nothing but fight. My take on the situation was this: It’s heartbreaking to lose a dear friend, but easy to give up a person who is a thorn in your side. By becoming thorns, the ultimate goodbye would be less difficult.
Indeed, it’s easy to shout, “Good riddance!” and it seems like that’s what kids do as they are making this separation at home. But how about the parents? Of course, they are sick of the drama inherent in the teenage years, but seeing their offspring purely as thorns in their sides doesn’t come easily at all, at least not in these books – or in my life.
At the end of The Margot Affair, we see Anouk on stage, performing a one-woman show. In it, she tells her life story including the fact that Margot is the love of her life. As for Jill, toward the end of Landslide, she imagines the day that the boys no longer live at home, and she thinks, “I’ll need grief counseling. I’m only partly joking.” As for me, my kids are the loves of my life and I did need some counseling to get through the empty nest period. And I’m not joking.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that these books were painful for me to read. I’d love to swear off all coming of age stories in the future, but I can’t. Instead, I will watch them play out in real life in the homes of my kids and grandkids.
As the grandma, I don’t think there’s a lot I can do to help with this transition except to be a sounding board for anyone who wants one. And of course, to be the one who validates the dual truths of these novels: It’s hard to be a teenager; it’s hard to have a teenager. And oh yes, one more thing, I can also give the long view. These difficult days will pass, most often with family love intact.
This is my hope for Anouk’s family, Jill’s family, and for my own.
A Call to Action: If you don’t subscribe to my blog, I hope you will. If you already do, thank you. Please suggest it to a friend!