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Books: Much ado about juveniles

Books | Comparing a Judy Blume novel to real literature

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1998," Dec. 5, 1998

Summer Sisters, Judy Blume's third adult novel, stayed in the Publisher's Weekly top 10 bestseller list for months and months through 1998. And why not? She is one of the most popular and successful of our living authors. She made her mark in the '70s with books for kids, teens, and young adults. But her books were controversial, intruding sexual themes into the previously sacrosanct world of children's literature: Dick and Jane meet the Kinsey Report. Given the cultural upheavals of that era, she was bound to be a hit. Mark Oppenheimer, Mellon Fellow in American religious history at Yale University, gushed about Judy Blume in the New York Times Book Review (Nov. 16, 1997): "When I got to college, there was no other author, except Shakespeare, whom more of my peers had read." It won't be surprising if many universities throw out the dead white male to make room for the with-it Blume. And on the surface, that could make sense, because Summer Sisters has a cast of central characters not unlike that of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing-two boys and two girls. Let's compare the two. Judy Blume chronicles the lives and loves of two girls, Vix (Victoria), a plucky poor kid from Santa Fe, and Caitlin, a messed-up rich girl from a broken home. Caitlin invites Vix to summer with her at her father's place on Martha's Vineyard. They become best friends, and the narrative takes them from age 12 to 30, including their relationships with their boyfriends Von and Bru. Much Ado, on the other hand, features Beatrice and Benedick, the confirmed spinster and bachelor who on the surface can't stand each other but fall madly in love with the slightest push. Meanwhile, Claudio and his girl Hero start off in love but become easily estranged when he thinks she is unfaithful. They become reconciled only through fiery trial. Shakespeare was able to tell of the duelling couples in two distinct states, skillfully integrated, each shedding light on the other. The plot of Summer Sisters, by contrast, is strictly paint-by-number. Ms. Blume plods through the entire predictable sequence of tawdry events that hit kids with no religious upbringing and no parental guidance: pubescent sexual experimentation, boy-crazy lust, loss of virginity, rebellion, drugs, fornication, abortion, unwise marriage, abandoned child, divorce, and finally, death. What about dialogue? In Much Ado, Beatrice and Benedick display flashy verbal swordplay. When Benedick says, "You are a rare parrot-teacher," Beatrice responds, "A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours," and he shoots back, "I would my horse had the speed of your tongue." Compare that with this scintillating exchange between Vix and Bru: "They began to argue about everything. 'What did you mean by that?' she'd ask. 'Nothing, just forget it,' he'd answer." Immortal words. What about theme? In Much Ado, the entire play is a ringing affirmation of the Christian idea of truth-telling, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Beatrice and Benedick speak falsely to each other in their spats, but find true love. Claudio slanders Hero when he accuses her of fornication, but learns the truth, confesses, and is absolved. Summer Sisters, however, has no central, unifying theme. It is all disconnected surface impressions, like a home video of people on the beach. The underlying assumption is that you never have to grow up. The entire book displays not one single adult character, even the ones over 21, 41, or 61. Caitlin's father, a man in his 50s, is still weeping over the death of John Lennon. All Blume characters still seem to be juveniles living self-centered, irresponsible lives. No one has a stable marriage. No one goes to church. Everyone is young, or trying to be, as indeed seems to be the case with Judy Blume herself, judging from the dust-cover photo of an ingenue born in 1938. Shakespeare still beats Blume. Read Much Ado About Nothing, or see the excellent Kenneth Branagh film, available on video.

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