CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 7. . . .October 15, 2010.
Toronto, ON: Tundra, 2010.
235 pp., pbk., $14.99.
Grades 6-7 / Ages 11-12.
Review by Karen Rankin.
When my mom finally walks in the door at nine-fifteen, she acts like nothing’s wrong at all.
“Where have you been?” I ask. “Dad and I have been worried sick. And now Grandma’s upset too.”
“What are you talking about? You knew I was going to my pilates class. What’s Grandma upset about?”
“We were worried because it’s dark out and no one knew where you were.”
It’s me who’s doing the talking, but Mom looks right past me and glares at Dad.
“Who called my mother?”
“I thought you might have dropped in there,” he says. “You were later than you usually are.”
“You wouldn’t like it if I got home this late,” I say.
“Maybe that’s because you’re only thirteen. I’m twenty-eight. There’s supposed to be a difference.”
“I don’t see why. Grandma always tells me it’s important to be dependable. If you aren’t and no one knows when you’re going to show up, you could get raped, murdered, and thrown into a ditch, and your family would just think you were late again. No one would even call the police.”
“Like I could be so lucky,” she says.
“I just got worried when you weren’t home by nine o’clock,” Dad says. “I mean, the gym is only a five minute drive from here and I knew the class was over at eight. I allowed twenty minutes for you to shower and change ...”
“Gina and I went to Starbucks for a coffee. So call the cops, get together a search party, or just shoot me – I don’t care! But don’t call my mother!”
“Starbucks?” Dad says. “What did you have?”
“Coffee. Just a regular coffee.”
“They call it a tall, I think.”
“Who cares what they call it?”
Mom is raising her voice again. I don’t know why she gets all twisted out of shape by Dad making a simple observation like that.
“You know,” he says. “The tall at Starbucks is twelve ounces and it’s expensive. You can get a sixteen ounce coffee at McDonald’s or A&W for just over a dollar.”
“What did I do to deserve this?” my mom wails.
“Grandma says it’s always better to bring friends home, and I bet it would be even cheaper if you’d waited ’til you got back here to have coffee,” I say.
“One little mistake when I’m fourteen and my whole life is ruined. I don’t know what’s worse: being married to a walking spreadsheet or being doomed to live with a doppelgänger of my mother.”
“What’s a doppelgänger?” I ask.
“Look it up in the dictionary,” she says.
I want to tell her it would be much faster if she’d just tell me herself, but she goes stomping out of the kitchen and heads upstairs.
I get the dictionary.
Thirteen-year-old Lucy is used to being driven to her Catholic school by her parents and picked up after school by her grandmother. She’s also used to her mom’s occasional fits of temper; but she never expected her to move out. When she does, Lucy blames her mom’s fun-loving new friend, Gina. Lucy doesn’t think much of Gina for other reasons as well: Gina’s about to move in with her boyfriend, and she has an annoying dog also, coincidentally, named Lucy. Gina lets Lucy’s mom use her tiny apartment – and take care of the dog – until Gina and her boyfriend can find a big enough, dog-friendly place to live. Lucy learns that, with her parents separated, the big beautiful house she’s grown up in will have to be sold. And, on top of everything, she is now being shunted daily between her home, school, Gina’s old apartment, and her grandparents’ house. She’s usually a well-organized and responsible student, but living in three homes makes it difficult to keep track of everything.
Through it all, Lucy continues to hope that her parents will reconcile. Her mom eventually finds a place big enough for her, Lucy, and Gina’s dog, but it’s in a trailer park, too far from their old home for Lucy to continue going to her Catholic school. The trailer park is supposed to be a temporary home, but Lucy still has to switch to the nearby public high school. She finds the work easy and most of the students in her classes nice enough; however, one girl – Brandy, who also lives in the trailer park – bullies Lucy. Siobhan, Lucy’s best friend from her old school, misses Lucy, and they still get together occasionally, but Lucy is jealous when she learns that Siobhan is making new friends. In the meantime, Lucy has become attached to Lucy the dog so she despairs when Gina and her boyfriend find the perfect place for themselves and the dog. At the same time, Lucy’s mom announces she’s quitting her job to go back to school – meaning they’ll have to stay in the trailer park another two years. Shortly after Gina decides to give her dog to Lucy, things start looking up. Lucy’s mom decides to form a promising new business partnership with Lucy’s dad that means Lucy will be moving again, but this time into a house just five minutes from Siobhan and a short bus ride from her old Catholic school. And it looks as though her parents will likely rekindle their romance.
Author Carole Lazar’s contemporary coming-of-age novel presents a thoughtful look at the repercussions for Lucy of being born to a loving, caring, but very young mother. As an only child, Lucy – like her parents – is well read. She’s also fairly serious, resourceful, somewhat precocious, and at the same time, sheltered and naïve. She is quite religious and opinionated, thanks to her close connection with her mom’s Catholic mother. Lucy knows what she wants and is convincingly self-centered while still considerate of others. During the course of the story, Lucy empowers herself by trying to control what she can in her quickly changing world. For instance, she undertakes her first venture alone on public transit after researching the long route from her Catholic school to her new mobile home. And she begins to solve the problem of being bullied by helping Brandy out of a tough situation with a teacher. She considers some of the problematic tenets of her faith given (for instance) contemporary expectations regarding sex and marriage. With Siobhan’s help, she also dyes her own and little Lucy’s hair and inadvertently gets horribly drunk. And she comes to the realization that one should not be too quick to judge.
Like Lucy, Lazar’s secondary characters – Lucy’s best-friend Siobhan, her frustrated mom and budget-conscious dad – as well as her peripheral characters – the bullying Brandy, parish priest, and nosy neighbour – are all believable.
Making hasty judgments is an interesting theme woven subtly throughout the novel, from – for example – Grandma’s perspective on why Lucy’s mother got pregnant at age fourteen, to a neighbour’s pronouncements on life as she sees it in the trailer park.
Lucy Unstrung is quietly instructive and entirely credible. However, for this reader, there is a bit of a disconnect with Lucy’s angst, and too much of the story feels like ‘set-up’ before it becomes compelling reading over halfway through the novel. Strong readers will enjoy Lucy’s story.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children’s stories.
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