________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 38 . . . . June 3, 2011


Beyond Blonde.

Teresa Toten.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2010.
236 pp., pbk., $14.00.
ISBN 978-0-14-317358-8.

Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Joan Marshall.

***½ /4



“Iz Uncle Luigi.” More dabbing.

Uncle Luigi? Since when did Luigi become Uncle Luigi?

“He is dropping dead, may he rest in pieces.” She made the sign of the cross. “Life is not a cabaret, old chum. Auntie Eva is behind herself. She is crazy vit good grief.”

David understandably looked confused. The Blondes, meanwhile, packed up their gear and mine in a nanosecond.

“We must to go.” Sigh.

“We’ll meet you at the Pink Panther, Mrs. Kandinsky,” called Madison. The Pink Panther was the pink Buick that Mama won when she broke records selling Mary Kay in the old days. We?

“I have fresh bagels in the car.” This was so that we wouldn’t be tempted to tear off an arm in hunger on the five minute drive back to Auntie Eva’s.

Kit grabbed my gear. Madison grabbed my arm. “See you next practice,” said Sarah as we made for the dressing room.

“Tenk you, darrrlings! You are all so much to help. I tell you true, tenk you!” Mama started backing up, waving and blowing kisses at the same time. I don’t know why I still get surprised. But there she was blowing kisses like she was about to disembark from the Queen Mary, and there’s the rest of my team blowing kisses right back.

Even the new assistant coach.

Like I said, she was that good.

Sophie Kandinsky’s back, now 17 and in grade eleven, still hoping that her beloved Papa will get his life under control so he can come back to her mother. Sophie’s still in lust with Luke who “had” to get married to Alison for the typical ‘70's reason. But then Sophie realizes that maybe her basketball team’s new assistant coach, the steely eyed David, is more luscious. Sophie’s good friends, the Blondes, have their own problems, but the girls build a friendship group as tight off the court as on, while Sophie’s Croatian Aunties and their various husbands alternately embarrass and love her to pieces. Between attending AA meetings in order to better understand her father’s addiction, and building her own concoction of religions to gain some peace, any peace, Sophie barrels along through life towards her Sweet Seventeen birthday party.

     Sophie’s endearing character leaps off the pages of this very funny yet poignant continuation of the Kandinsky saga. Her self deprecating wit, her adoration of her conflicted parents, and her commitment to her Blonde friends will resonate even with teens who live in today’s world. Sophie comes face to face with sexual desire and sexual morality à la 70's. Excruciatingly embarrassed by her flamboyant mother and Aunties, she loyally supports her friends and longs for her parents to be together and at peace.

     Secondary characters bring laughter and thoughtful ideas to this delightful novel. Sophie’s father’s struggle with alcohol, his love for his daughter and his success – one year of sobriety – are central to Sophie’s life. Her mother’s anguish and her real estate career that she fits in around Sophie’s schedule perfectly reflect the ‘70's experience. Sophie’s outrageous Aunties alternately embarrass and charm her. Sophie remains totally in tune with the Blondes who struggle with accepting a lower class biological grandmother, the terror of realizing you are lesbian and the determination to remain a virgin in the face of lust and love.

     Toten is a wizard at dialogue. It is the conversations that enliven and enrich this novel, demonstrating character and moving the plot along. Although the dialogue is stunningly good, Sophie’s inner reflections bring it all together, introducing her thoughtful concerns and struggle to do the right thing. Although Sophie’s interest in the practices of the many religions she considers may seem odd to today’s secular teens, Sophie’s interest in spirituality doesn’t turn her into a prude (“Jesus God” is her response to stress) but only reflects her need for a calm centre in her life. Toten does a stellar job of seamlessly interweaving the back story from the first two books in the series.

     This novel, set in the ‘70's, demonstrates no technology – only one phone call is even mentioned. The scenes place characters together directly – playing high level basketball, planning a funeral, attending AA meetings and enjoying the tensions of parties. It is high school life in the ‘70's: travelling across town to buy condoms, attending your boyfriend’s basketball games because he’s the captain and you’re the girlfriend, holding a party to celebrate turning 16 (or in Sophie’s case, 17), the chaos of home hair colouring. Nevertheless, today’s teens, especially girls, will laugh out loud and sigh in recognition of the sweet pain of growing up.

Highly Recommended.

Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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