Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky (Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers; January 2007) showed up unexpectedly on my doorstep as a review copy that I might be interested in reading. And here’s the thing: I don’t tend to read teen chick lit (and, lest anyone think that’s said in a derogatory manner, it’s not at all. It’s also how Snadowsky herself refers to the novel). If I weren’t taking a temporary break from librarianship and were working on a daily basis with teens, I’d read it way more often. But, since I currently am not spending my week days trying to encourage teens to read for pleasure, I tend towards the — as Eisha put it on our “About Our Blog” page — “Man Booker Prize-winning high art metafiction, whatever” . . . That might make me sound impossibly snobby, but believe me when I say that when I read others’ reviews (on my favorite blogs) of teen chick lit and the like, I envy them and the fact that they are, likely, way more in touch with what the average teen today would want to read.
So, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to read this one (what with my huge stack of reading material). But boy howdy and howdy boy does Random House know how to market a title. I just had to read the first page when I read that this is the “contemporary counterpart to Judy Blume’s Forever” (her groundbreaking novel, first published in 1975, about a teen couple in love who actually have sexual feelings and act responsibly upon them — oh, and no one dies) and an “unflinching account of teen love, sex and heartbreak.” Indeed, Snadowsky dedicates the book — in part — to Blume, and indeed it is a believable narrative about First Love.
And, yes, it’s unflinching. However, it may not be surprising to you when I say — given the caveat above — that I can’t be quite sure what is considered a particularly candid portrayal of a teen’s sexual life when I don’t tend to read those novels often. But I’ll take the publisher’s word for it (as well as Booklist and Publishers Weekly and many other review journals). And I can say that, no matter how other authors tend to handle these subjects, Snadowsky’s debut novel very honestly addresses these issues — a teen’s first love, first attempt at a real, honest, and mature relationship, and sex.
Basic plot line here for those interested: Dominique (”Dom”) Baylor is a senior at a small private school. She is a hard-working student, reads Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body for fun, plays the board game “Operation” for practice on keeping her future-surgeon hand steady, and has her sights set on Stanford Medical School. Dom is a virgin, while her best friend is sexually experienced and often shares stories about her sexual escapades with Dom. Needless to say, Dom falls in love — and hard — with Wesley Gershwin, a track-star senior from a neighboring public school. Wes falls just as hard, and the dating commences. So does the euphoria of new love. And so does their sexual journey, both of them stumbling their way along (Wes is also a virgin).
Fortunately, Snadowsky writes about this sexual journey in a candid, no-holds-barred manner. And we’re talking first sex, oral sex, orgasms, and masturbation. All done respectfully so and with Snadowsky’s great respect for her characters and the characters’ respect for each other. As for that latter subject, it’s particularly fitting that Dom experiences her first orgasm (having never experienced it with Wes, even having faked it at one point) towards the novel’s close after her best friend gives her a vibrator for Christmas. (Amusingly, Dom thinks it’s a back-massager and is rather baffled at how it’s supposed to work). What’s fitting here is that she has broken up with Wes (aw, come on, no one can complain about spoilers. You figure this out by reading the book’s jacket. No hate mail, please), yet she — in her isolation and teen-angst despair — is able to bring herself happiness.
As the Booklist review puts it so well in discussing the inevitable comparisons to Blume’s Forever: “What feels so new here is the nonsensationalized explicitness. Dom speaks with an almost scientific curiosity: ‘I can recognize the features of his penis from my anatomy books.’ And her sexual insecurities are just as direct: ‘What if I squeal or scream or fart?’” And, as the Publishers Weekly review points out, Snadowsky tackles these subjects boldly, confidently. Yes, unflinchingly. (Is there any other way to do it? Not being a big reader of such books, I don’t know. I’d cringe to see writers handle it any other way).
And the characters are well-drawn. We even get fairly detailed glimpses into Dom’s family (parents, grandmother) and Wes’ parents, whom Dom grows to love and respect. The dialogue rolls right along crisply and believably. Snadowsky includes a heavy dose of email conversations and instant message conversations as well. This isn’t the most lyrical writing you’ll see in 2007, but Snadowsky doesn’t set out to do that. On her site, she pretty much tells us what she sets out to do instead:
Having recently emerged rather scathed from my umpteenth relationship, I inevitably ended up thinking a lot about love—how it can make you feel on top of the world at one moment, and in the depths of despair the next, or how it can feel so right when it’s so wrong, and so wrong when it’s so right. I was thinking that even though love had been written about millions of times over the centuries, it’s a subject that never gets old because there’s always a new generation of young people experiencing it for the first time. I was thinking that although school introduced me to some of the most celebrated works of literature, on the whole it was the contemporary slang-filled young adult novels I read as a teenager that truly resonated with me.
This is nothing new she is contributing to the YA landscape. But she’s still on to something if her forthright, upfront, straight-up, honest, and respectful-to-the-teen-audience way of writing about sex is as noteworthy as the reviewers make it out to be (again, I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty, since I don’t have a big collection of teen chick lit). She just might be here to stay. And Random House even has, as I read here at Bookburger, a custom-built interactive game just for the novel. Build Your Own Boyfriend — you know you wanna do it. If only I could simultaneously give him the cross-eyed look and purple hair. They’ve even got an “Emo” boyfriend choice, complete with a book of Sad Poems. Had I actually dated in high school (sad, I know), I would have probably dated him.
Any high school or public library would do well to purchase this title. It will get talked about and enthusiastically passed around (and both males and females would enjoy the read, though we are more privy to the mind of Dom than we ever are to what exactly Wes is thinking), especially amongst your high school seniors who trot off to college intending to continue dating their beloved prom date (as Dom and Wes do). And I’m curious to see what Snadowsky comes up with next. In the meantime, go build your own boyfriend.