Review: Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt
Sometimes the idea of a book is ultimately stronger than the story within.
In the case of Erica Lorraine Scheidt's debut novel, Uses for Boys, I found myself distracted by the innovative take on teen sexuality. However, once I was stuck into the story, the execution ultimately did not work.
Uses for Boys opens when Anna, whose first-person point-of-view is told in a stream-of-consciousness, real-time style, is a child, alone with her mother, never having known her father. She believes that, together, she and her mom can take on anything. But soon, a string of stepfathers and a career mean that Anna rarely sees her mother, she believes she has no family.
I want to go back to the tell-me-again times when I slept in her bed and we were everything together. When I was everything to her. Everything she needed.
She soon discovers that boys can make her feel needed, that they can fill a void for her. The attention makes her feel special, even if it means that the girls shun her and call Anna vicious names.
The first few chapters of Uses for Boys make for powerful stuff.
The perspective of young Anna as she decides to allow herself to go down the path of wanting boys to use her, to abuse her, is heartbreaking. She eventually starts playing house with a boy every day and they become sexually involved. This makes her feel important and grown up. This boy needs her in a way her real family never did.
Of course, it's all just a fantasy and it doesn't last.
And then he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say he’ll miss me or that he’s sorry. Does he know he’s leaving me? That I’ll have to ride the bus home alone and come home alone and be home alone? They leave, I think, just like my mom says.
But she does meet her first girl friend, Toy, who's everything Anna wishes to be.
Toy is talking and this is why I love her. She can go on about herself ceaselessly and like the scratching of a branch against the window at night, the steady insistence of it is comforting. She has stories without beginnings, stories that trail off, stories that crisscross and contradict and dead end.
Soon, Anna leaves home, moves to Portland from her comfortable home in the suburbs and finds another boy. The natural course of events unfolds, since Anna's a young girl, living with a loser boyfriend.
Eventually--and I mean waaaaay eventually, as in after nearly three-quarters of the book--Anna meets Sam. Sam's a boy with a normal, intact family, who doesn't want to have sex with Anna right away. He wants to get to know her as a person and maybe things can change for Anna.
I really appreciate what Scheidt is doing with Uses for Boys, exposing what causes girls to devalue themselves and believe that sex and love and caring are all the same thing.
Despite the compelling premise, after just a few chapters of Uses for Boys, I found myself challenged to continue reading.
While the writing initially gripped me, I found myself longing for dialog so that I could understand Anna more. Understanding characters so often comes not from the narrators' internal voice, but from their interactions with others. Because Uses for Boys takes place entirely within Anna's head, there's only minimal opportunity to understand her in relation to anyone else.
And the city. The city! Only a bus ride away and full of possibilities. We get dressed up and do our makeup. We go downtown and stand around. I belong here, I tell Toy. I’m hungry for every city block. Every brick building. Every crowded intersection. Electric. I feel brand new. My hair is shaggy and getting longer and I wear the wingtips with dresses from the forties and old-man cardigans. A broken leather belt knotted around my waist. Toy wears tunics over skinny jeans with high heels and thick socks. “The city will transform us,” I explain. “We’ll never be alone.”
The passage above is illustrative of the glimpses we're given into Anna's interactions with other people. It's not much and it really limits the character development. And, frankly, I didn't feel like the present tense, blow-by-blow quasi literary style worked for this story. Usually I enjoy young adult fiction with a bit of a literary bent (ie, The Sharp Time) but in this instance, the style distanced me from the narrator and resulted in my never feeling connected to her story.
My new window looks out at a brick wall and when it’s wet I’ll know it’s raining. I walk around the apartment touching the walls and hanging my clothes in the little closet. I buy blue paint. I wear the overalls that Toy and I bought at Salvation Army with a bandana over my hair and a thin white tank top underneath. I borrow a stepladder from the manager who says I have to paint the walls again when I leave. It’s the color of my dreams, I tell Toy in my head.
This is definitely a stylistic preference, but I think a lot of readers will have this same reaction. The writing style left me wanting to know more about Anna, more about her world and less about the minutiae of her day-to-day activities in between hook-ups. Her thoughts are never particularly clear and as a result, I wondered what else was "off" about Anna beyond her abject loneliness. There was something about her that wasn't quite right (perhaps a mental health issue or a learning disability--it's a jumbled thing, but present nonetheless), but that's never explored in Uses for Boys, but it's a strong enough element that I assumed it was intentional.
And that brings me to the "the sex stuff." There's a lot of sex in this book for a YA novel.
And it's mildly graphic. It's not at all "sexy," and I found it pretty gross as an adult. With that said, it's also effectively rendered and I am surprised by how offended many early reviewers are by how it's handled in Uses for Boys. It in no way glamorizes the way Anna uses sex to feel wanted and less alone, it simply peels away the layers behind those experiences. Think of the way Ellen Hopkins handles these subjects and you're on the right track with the subject of sex in Uses for Boys.
Uses for Boys also tackles both rape and abortion, but they're handled as experiences rather than as issues, which is notable. I'm pretty wildly read in contemporary YA fiction and it's actually pretty refreshing that Scheidt didn't make either of these incidents into Big Things That Must Be Addressed. Particularly in the context of this story, where such much of life happens to Anna, rather than her being actively engaged in life, this makes sense for the novel. But, I do think these subjects, combined with the rawness of the sex, will push buttons for some readers. (None of this fazed me, but I understand when others are bothered.)
I was also concerned about the way Anna's relationship with her mother was depicted.
Anna's problems are rooted in her issues with her mother's emotional absence and her mother's search for the man who's going to solve all her problems.
I’m in the kitchen eating cereal when my mom comes home. “Is that all you ever eat?” She stands in the doorway wearing a white linen jacket, her purse in one hand. She doesn’t sit down. She walks back into the kitchen and looks in the refrigerator. “You should go grocery shopping,” she says. And then she looks in her purse and pulls out two twenties. She’s wearing high-heeled burgundy shoes with straps around the ankle and there’s a streak of orangey makeup on her collar. I wonder if she’s getting old and if this is what it’s going to be like. Bits of her coming off on her clothes.
Anna's mom is not good at being a parent. She's more focused on finding a man than raising her daughter. She brings a string of stepfathers into Anna's life and doesn't seem to make an attempt to integrate the families in a healthy way. But we also see Anna's mother develop into a career woman (Anna describes her as working all the time and dressing nicely), coming a long way from living in crappy apartments.
Uses for Boys clearly indicts the adults who let Anna down and who are responsible for her seeking comfort in sex with boys at a young age. And they deserve it--especially Anna's mother. But I was also left feeling sorry for her mother, who was just as lost as Anna, but who also managed to make a career for herself and provide for her teen daughter. I was simply uncomfortable with the subtle damning of Anna's mother. (Again, this is largely due to the point-of-view and writing style.)
My final frustration with Uses for Boys has nothing to do with the actual novel.
It's yet another book with a blurb and cover that will mislead readers looking for one type of story, but will get something very, very different. The cute romance-y cover and blurb focus on Anna's relationship with same indicate that the reader will get a story about redemption and love. But Sam doesn't come into the picture until nearly the end of the story. Furthermore, readers who love stark, realistic fiction may pass up Uses for Boys based on the cutesy cover and blurb focused on the romance angle.
This bothers me tremendously. So much of book discovery is finding the right book for the right reader and it bothers me that the publisher decided to put up a barrier to this book reaching an audience that will appreciate and enjoy it.
Scheidt's debut will definitely resonate with readers who enjoy gritty, realistic teen fiction ala Ellen Hopkins. Unfortunately, I am simply not that reader. I was never stuck into Uses for Boys, despite my sympathies for Anna's situation, but the unique premise and unusual writing style were never enough to allow me to become invested in the story.
For an alternate take, I recommend reading Kelly's review on Goodreads.
Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.