This is one of those books I’d heard about for years. I knew it was a groundbreaking work, but I never really thought about checking it out until last month. I was looking for a different book in the YA section of one of my local libraries (Keturah and Lord Death, by Martine Leavitt; I considered using it for the “Not every YA heroine needs a boyfriend” post, but it just didn’t compel me beyond the first two chapters), and this bright pink cover caught my eye (gee, I wonder if it’s pink because the book is about girls? *eyeroll* ).
Now, I’ll admit, I had some preconceived notions about the book because of its “groundbreaking” reputation. It had this something-you’d-read-in-school aura in my mind, so I didn’t expect it to be as compelling as it was. I didn’t expect it to be like In Sea-Salt Tears (except for the bittersweet tone — that is, I thought it would be bittersweet, but Annie surprised me there, too).
I’ve split this review into two pages, one without spoilers and one with. If you haven’t read the book, you can safely read on. If you have read it, and want to see my thoughts re: specific plot points and such, just follow the link to page 2.
The Non-Spoilery Review
Plot: Most of the story is told as a first-person retrospective — Liza Winthrop, now a freshman at MIT, is telling us what happened a year ago, when she was a senior at Foster Academy in Brooklyn Heights, NY. The short, present-time interludes, told in the third person, hint that something traumatic happened at Foster, something that’s kept Liza from answering the letters she receives from California — the letters from Annie. The first scene opens as she finally tries to write a response:
“What I have to do, I think, before I can mail you a letter, is sort out what happened. I have to work through it all again–everything–the bad parts, but the good ones too–us and the house and Ms. Stevenson and Ms. Widmer, and Sally and Walt, and Ms. Baxter and Mrs. Poindexter and the trustees, and my parents and poor, bewildered Chad.” *
I like how that passage gives a vague summary of the major plot points (or, rather, the people involved in each of those events) without actually saying what happened. The other interludes give us further clues, building just the right amount of suspense as we get closer to the climax.
I also like how Liza begins the actual story, with this meta statement:
Ms. Widmer, who taught English at Foster Academy, always said that the best way to begin a story is to start with the first important or exciting incident and then fill in the background. **
Because the story is mainly about Liza and Annie’s relationship, that first important event is, of course, their first meeting. But here’s another thing that surprised me about the book — it’s not just about the romance. That’s the core, but it’s connected to a substantial sub-plot involving Liza’s school and its overbearing principal. Desperate to keep Foster from closing as more and more parents send their kids to public schools, Mrs. Poindexter (yes, really) has been increasingly overstepping her bounds — taking over student council meetings instead of letting the students handle things as they usually do, threatening to remove Liza as president for failing to report a trivial incident… she reminds me of Ms. Bee, from Not That Kind Of Girl, though more authoritarian and with clearer motivations.
Characterization: All of the characters are developed very well, so even the antagonists — even though they’re filtered through their victim’s point of view — aren’t painted as pure villains. Because even Liza feels some pity for them, though of course she’s hurt and outraged at their behavior.
The character who felt most relatable to me was Annie, with her sentimental nature (how simple happy things could make her cry) and love of make-believe. Especially her love of make-believe —
Annie smiled, out of character for a second, as if thanking me for responding. Then she went back into her role and said, “Shall we walk in the garden, sir knight, among the herbs and away from these rude throngs, till my duties force me to return?” †
Liza and Annie: Like the individual characters, the romance at the center of the story is beautifully and very believably developed. A love that forms so quickly and deeply between two high-school students — and that doesn’t feel like just a high-school romance — might seem unrealistic, at least in my experience. When I was 13-17, there were several times I thought I’d never feel the same way about anyone else as I did about whoever I was crushing on at the moment. But Liza and Annie’s relationship feels much stronger than that. And hey, the author stayed with her high-school sweetheart for over thirty years, marrying her in 2004.
One random thing… There’s one scene that feels very weird and problematic, the way it explores the idea of what’s good and what’s evil. Present-day Liza thinks about the snow outside her dorm, which to her is “so white, so pure,” and directly contrasts that with a picture she remembers from childhood, “of a terrible black and twisted shape, a little like an old-fashioned steam radiator, but with a head on it and stubby feet with claws.” Later, she builds a snow-model of that creature and thinks how “pure and white and guiltless” it looks now, and how it “can never turn black and ugly like the monster of [her] childhood”. ‡
Um…yeah…see… I mean, I don’t know what the magazine in which Liza remembers seeing the image meant by it, but… At the very least, it’s incredibly cliché to describe good and evil as white vs. black.
Overall: There are books I borrow from the library and enjoy while I have them. And then there are books I enjoy so much that, after I have to return them, I promptly Amazon or eBay myself a copy. Annie On My Mind is in that second group. If there’d been a Kindle version (and I’m astounded that there isn’t one yet — this is a classic, for goodness’ sake!), I’d have “1-click”-ed it the moment I first finished the library copy. Ah well, I do love the cover art for the 2007 paperback, and it includes a great interview with the author at the end.
P.S. Juv/YA librarian Sarah Alexander, a.k.a. Lezbrarian, discusses more awesome works by awesome lesbian authors here (be aware, it’s a very NC-17 article w/ sexually explicit language and some swearing. Just so’s you know), including some YAs — Annie is even listed first! But warning, vague spoilers re: the nature of the ending.
* Nancy Garden. Annie On My Mind. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007 (originally 1982). Pg. 5
** Pg. 7
† Pg. 52
‡ Pgs 225, 228-29