Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sex or success, take your pick, or Too Young to Die

Too Young to Die (published 1989) was one of the Lurlene books I read early on in my Lurlene obsession. I have really vivid memories of reading this one (and its sequel I haven't tracked down yet, but hopefully I'll be reviewing it soon) at my parents' restaurant and loving it SO MUCH. This is always a huge warning sign; apparently young Ames was not to be trusted.

I do think this was Lurlene's first real attempt at writing a cancer book, and the reason I picked this one up in the first place this time around was that I'd just started the first Dawn Rochelle book, and I was all "OH MAN I HAVE SEEN THIS ALL BEFORE" so I figured I'd just go back to the beginning and take it from there. I mean, Dawn Rochelle can wait, right? The girl's got five books; I doubt she's going anywhere.

So, right, Too Young to Die. I scoured the web high and low, but I couldn't find the edition I grew up with. So here's what we've got to work with:

The book spends a lot of time telling us how pretty our protag, Melissa, is, so it's kind of sad they just put a really nondescript girl on the cover. If you want me to buy ravishing beauty, cover designer, you've got to GIVE ME ravishing beauty. Then again, you want me to think the hunky dude is, well, a hunk, and this guy's, like, hey, I just got my first job, and it's CASUAL FRIDAY!

UPDATED: the lovely and talented snappleaddict scanned me the cover I'd been searching for!:

Wow, could he be giving her a creepier look? As you'll soon see, no matter if this guy is supposed to be the boyfriend or the brother, that's pretty damn accurate.

Oh, right, do you guys want to know what the publishers want us to THINK this book is about? Here we go!:
At sixteen, Melissa Austin has always worked hard to make things go her way. As the school year begins, her grades are up and she's even landed a coveted spot on the high school Brain Bowl team. She and her best friend, Jory Delaney, are determined to have the best junior year ever.

But suddenly Melissa receives devastating news about her health. At first she refuses to accept the doctor's diagnosis, but as her illness gets worse she cannot deny the truth. The caring and closeness Melissa feels toward her family and especially toward Jory help her find the inner strength and courage to face the mysteries of living and dying.
Man, if there's anything I've learned from the Lurleneverse (and noted by Genevieve as well), the second your life starts to go as well as good grades and Brain Bowl (is that like being a mathlete?), you're gonna catch the cancer, no way out of it.

The book opens with Melissa and her BFF Jory getting up at 4 a.m. to help Melissa's brother fly his hot air balloon. Probably the technical term isn't "fly" but, you guys, I am not sitting here and researching proper hot air balloon terminology for you. My love only runs so deep. Just deal with it! Jory's going on and on and on about how hot Melissa's brother is and how baddddddddd she wants him, and Melissa just teases her instead of being all grossed out like I would be. This is probably because Melissa is obviously ALSO in love with her brother. Seriously, you guys, she can't shut up about him. Here are some excerpts:
He was dressed in well-worn jeans, and his black hair was still damp from a shower, all five foot ten of him smelling of clean, fresh soap.

. . .

Michael turned his sapphire-blue eyes toward her. Sometimes looking at him was like looking into a mirror. He had the same square face, high, angular cheekbones, and dark eyebrows as she.

. . .

Michael stood and stretched, his physique rippling with muscle.

That first passage in particular reminded me of this gross Sweet Valley High moment between Jess and Steven, quoted over at the Dairi Burger:
“Could you zip up my dress, please?”

. . .

“Sure” Steven said good-naturedly. He walked up to his sister, who was now standing before the full length mirror on the back of his closet door. He bent his six-one body over the zipper. It took a little maneuvering, but he finally managed to zip up the dress without damaging the delicate fabric.
Seriously, ghostwriter, I never, ever want to imagine Steven bending all six-foot-one of his body over Jessica.

As for that second passage, it's a little Chris and Cathy, yeah? Ewwww.

And as for the third? Well, geez, I've been won over. Now even I am hopelessly attracted to Michael. Oh, let me tell you guys some more about Michael. He's in community college, he works TWO JOBS so he can have a nice life and help out his poor, single, working mother, and he hot-air-balloons for fun.

So the first clue we're supposed to get that Melissa is illllllll is that she's draggin' her ass out of bed while Jory's all good morrrrrrrrrrrning! It's four a.m.! If being barely able to get out of bed at four a.m. means you have leukemia, I think almost everyone I know must have leukemia.

Actually, Melissa gets more symptoms in one page than anyone I've ever met in the Lurleneverse. In ONE PAGE she's got dark circles under her eyes, tons of unexplained bruising, fatigue, and uncontrollable bleeding. DUDE MELISSA THIS ISN'T GOOD. Also, this is PAGE TWO. Also every other second Lurlene mentions Melissa's waist-length dark brown hair, and you know any book that talks about long flowing luscious shining gleaming streaming flaxen-waxen hair is ready to chemo it all out.

Michael's all in love with the world post-balloon ride:
"It's incredible--high above the earth, seeing the world like a bird does. Man, it's almost better than--" He caught himself, glancing self-consciously at Jory.

"Better than sex?" Melissa finished drolly, quoting one of his frequently used descriptive phrases. "I wouldn't know."

"You better not."
Ew, Michael, shut up. You are not your sister's hymen's keeper.

So Michael is not into Jory at all, because she's rich and occasionally mentions she went somewhere fancy or, I dunno, shows up places in her nice car. It's really dumb; Jory's sixteen and can't help that her parents have money. She's super-nice and generous, so why does it make her a bad person? Okay, now I hate you, Michael, despite all your hard work and your rippling physique.

Jory encourages Melissa to be more into boys, but she's all I R VRY SRS STUDENT so because she wants to focus on her PSATs she apparently can't be into boys too. Whatever, fine. I have met people like this so I'll give it a pass even though it doesn't make a lot of sense to me, as boys can generally exist in the same world as good grades and PSATs. But then Melissa's occasionally mentioning all the dates she's been on in the past, etc., and I don't think it's very consistent. Anyone who has dated enough to refer to it like that isn't someone who doesn't get that you can date AND study. I guess the Lurleneverse is one of those places where all boys and girls date starting really young and go out on those totes proper date-dates, the kinds I don't think any high-schooler has been on in like two decades, yeah? Yeah. What a shock, the Lurleneverse not lining up with the reality I've lived through, right?

Despite this, Melissa is soooo into this dude named Brad. He's all RICH and HANDSOME, but also once Melissa is offered a spot on the Brain Bowl, he is too, so, wow, he is RICH and HANDSOME and SMART. If he's nice to his mother and not the keeper of anyone's hymen, I would say he officially wins out over Michael. Freaking Michael!

Melissa's mom isn't crazy about all the studying she's doing. Oh my god, Ms. Austin, you're a terrible mother! WHO COMPLAINS ABOUT THAT EVER?:
"I want to go to college."

Her mother sighed. [OH MY GOD YEAH THAT IS SOOO UNREASONABLE.] "How did I ever end up with success-oriented kids? [Obviously not by leading through example.] All I wanted to do when I was your age was get married."

"I want it all, Mom. Lots of women have careers and families. [Not in the Lurleneverse, sweetie.] Why can't I do both? [Uh, bruises, fatigue, bleeding, your brother's close watch on your virginity....] You do."

"I had to," her mother reminded her. "I would have been perfectly content to stay at home and raise babies. But, when I did have to go to work, it would have been much easier if I'd had an education to fall back on. [Wait, what?] As it was, I started at the bottom."
Shorter Ms. Austin: My life would have been a lot better with a college education so why do you want one? UM MS. AUSTIN DOESN'T THAT ACTUALLY MEAN YOU AGREE WITH YOUR DAUGHTER? You're an idiot; I don't think an undergraduate degree could have fixed that.

Jory shows up for dinner; since her parents are rich that means they're never home and don't actually love her. I read this sentence a few times but I'm still confused:
[Jory's] auburn curls were streaked with hair paint, and her outfit was straight out of a fashion magazine.
Can you guys PLEASE tell me what hair paint is? I have to know! Is it like that hair mascara? I totally remember that from the 1990s. What else could it be? Also why would Jory have a totally normal ensemble for school but then paint up her hair for dinner at the Austins? Oh, right, I bet she was hoping Michael was there. God, Jory, I actually really like you, but haven't you figured out by now Michael will not be impressed by such attempts as HAIR PAINT.

After their first grueling week of school, Jory invites Melissa over for a movie night. This book is so dated, check it out!:
"You're ruining your table," [Melissa] noted irritably.

Jory shrugged. "The maid will clean it tomorrow. [Oh those rich bitches and their maids!] Are we going to watch movies or blabber?"

"Which TV? The one in your room, the den, or the family room?" Melissa asked, knowing that the irony of the question would be lost on Jory. Didn't every house have three TVs?
UH YES MELISSA ANY MORE THEY ACTUALLY DO. Mine has five that are used regularly, and a few more in storage. I have seen the future, and it makes Jory Delaney's TV set-up quite unimpressive!

Melissa, of course, falls asleep early and sleeps in late, which is basically me on many weekends too, because I am old, and also because giant Mexican dinners tend to do that to a girl. So if you guys wake up late on Saturday mornings, review and assess: Did I have Mexican last night? If yes, whew! If no, CANCER CANCER CANCER.

They spend the day at the country club where Jory's a member BECAUSE SHE'S RICH. Guess who's there? Brad! Him and Melissa walk off on their own and get all flirty, even though Melissa is terrified. Again, this is why I hate all the mentions of all the dates Melissa's been on. Sure, it's scarier when it's someone you're TOTES INTO because there's, like, all this pressure on it to be AWESOME but GEEZ Melissa does NOT strike me as having tons of boy experience. Also I spoke to Michael and he confirmed with some official hymen reports. Thanks, Michael.

I actually like Brad but then he gets kind of creepy:
"Melissa." His voice went low and quiet. "Can I unbraid your hair?"

Flustered by his request and change of subject she stammered. "Y-Yes. If you want."

He reached over her shoulder and pulled the tightly wound braid forward, unclasping the gold clip. She couldn't tear her eyes from his face, couldn't stop the emotions and sensations pouring through her body. Brad unwound the plait slowly, dragging his fingers through the thick, dark masses of her hair until the strands fell loose and free. He sifted it through his fingers like sand, gathering it into handfuls. A breeze spun wispy strands across her face. "God, you have beautiful hair." His whisper sounded worshipful.
OF COURSE IT DID. Ew, I don't want to read about Fetish Boy and his desire to fuck Melissa's hair. I mean, I know this is only here so we can be all "OH NOES" in a few chapters, but, grrross.

Meanwhile, teachers have noticed all the bruises on Melissa and assume her mom's beating her. I guess that's good to have teachers who'd notice! I didn't go to a very good high school; I probably could have come in with a bunch of black eyes and my arm in a cast and gotten zero response. Oh, crap, does this explain why I started dying my hair all those wacky colors; WAS I JUST AFTER SOME ADULT ATTENTION? Pardon me while I reexamine my life in style.

Of course Ms. Austin, while being a shitty mother in other ways, wasn't beating Melissa, so Melissa has to go to the doctor to figure out what's going on. If this book was set fifteen years in the future, Melissa the brainiac would be using the hell out of Mayo Clinic and would already see her diagnosis all laid out for her. Honestly, I can't believe she's this much of a genius and can't figure this one out as it is.

While getting tested, this dude stops by Melissa's room:
"I'd heard from the nurses that there was a fox on the floor. [Geez, way to be unprofessional, nurses!] They didn't lie." The male voice coming from her doorway startled Melissa so completely that the brush fell from her grip [again, with the hair, god, could she nail this one in any more?] and clattered to the floor. In the doorway stood a stranger, surveying her with an insolent, wolfish grin.
Then the chapter ends. INTRIGUE! Wolfish? Is he a Special? Luckily, the next chapter picks up right where we left off, all Dan Brown-style again, so we don't have to wonder for long. He's just some dude named Ricter Davis, Ric for short. Ricter? THE HELL? Whose name is RICTER? I agree with the commenter who wants to see the weird-ass name book Lurlene uses. By the way, are there other writers who read this? Have you ever bought yourself a name book? Man, it's awful, I'm always like, "crap, do I look fat in this or do I look pregnant? I'm just a writer who needs help with names!" Luckily the internet has eliminated my need for those embarrassing scenarios.

Ricter's all "THE TESTS DON'T HURT AS MUCH AS THE RESULTS DO" and runs off, well, as much as he can run with one leg and two crutches. God, I hate him, he's all straight out of a Sarah Dessen book with ALL THE INFORMATION but not sharing it.

Thing is, he's right! Ruh roh! Melissa's got leukemia! Oh noes!

Ric shows up again with this observation:
"Jesus, you're pretty."

There was a sadness in his whispered words she didn't understand. "So what? What do my looks have to do with anything?"

"Just an observation."
Duh, Melissa, only ugly people are supposed to get cancer. Also:
"Too bad about your hair."

"What about it?"

"The chemo will take it. It'll take it all."
HOW DOES MELISSA NOT ALREADY KNOW THIS? I swear this was the FIRST thing I knew about cancer treatments! And I didn't qualify for any Brain Bowl action.

The book then, like, totes skims over the first weeks of treatment at double-speed, which is weird considering the painstakingly detailed narration of all the symptoms and tests. Geez, Lurlene, you're letting your medical fetishism slip. I guess there's only room for so much fetish in one book? Seriously, I bet this book is held aloft in hair-worship societies.

Once the hair's gone, Jory the awesome BFF shows up with some silk scarves for Melissa to wear. Melissa's all OMG THESE COST IN THE DOUBLE-DIGITS which made me giggle. I know back then that was a lot to spend but ha! It isn't weird at all for me to buy a friend a gift totalling in the double-digits, and none of my friends have even have worship-worthy hair that fell out due to leukemia treatments.

Melissa writes this journal entry:
I met a little girl today named Rachael. She's four and she has cancer, too. She thought I was very old, being sixteen, and I thought she was very sweet and too young for these things they're putting us through at the hospital. She asked me if I was a mommy. Of course, I'm not. But I can't help wondering if I ever will be. Who will want to make love to me now that I'm sick? What would it be like to have a baby grow inside of me? Will I ever know?
I thought this was actually pretty realistic, and I did like that Lurlene dealt with Melissa wondering if anyone would ever want to sleep with her. Isn't that how we deal with so much of the traumas life throws at us? Go Lurlene for not just going with "who will love me now" or "who'll marry me now"! This book is weirdly sexual. God, what a relief. I mean, hello, teenagers + drama? If some hormones don't show up I'd be concerned.

So Melissa's doing better so she gets to go home before she achieves remission. Yay! From how I understand it, kids don't have to have these terribly long stays for leukemia anymore, not that I'm some expert. I'm just trying to know what the hell I'm talking about so I can provide you lovely people with some insightful information.

Melissa takes her PSATs waaaay before she should be back at school, but of course still hits the 98th percentile. Go Melissa! She then gets to go back to school, which is tough, even though she's wearing a wig of artificial, shorter hair. Everyone's all "oh, man, sucks you had to cut your hair" like WHY THE HELL DO THESE PEOPLE NOT KNOW ABOUT CHEMO? No wonder Melissa achieved Brain Bowl so easily.

Sadly, Brad's met some new girl, which upsets Melissa even though she knows she has no chance anymore. This seems pretty realistic to me; I'm glad even though Brad was a semi-cool guy with a hair fetish, he acted the way a lot of kids would have acted. What can I say? Occasionally Lurlene strikes realism.

One day Melissa leaves school to be greeted by Ric. You guys ready for the creepy?"
"How did you find me?"

"I watched the school empty and kept an eye out for the pretty girls. I'd almost given up."

"I had Brain Bowl drill."

He glanced to the side. "Actually, I've waited for you before, but you always seemed to be with that girlfriend of yours."
Oh man, he's so straight out of a Sarah Dessen novel, stalking her into submission. Of COURSE Melissa starts dating him, basically because he's all "NO ONE ELSE WILL UNDERSTAND YOU LIKE I DOOOOO CANCER CANCER WE BOTH HAVE CANCER". Michael doesn't approve, because Ric's nineteen, and apparently poses a real threat to Melissa's hymen, but Jory thinks it's great. Melissa journals that Ric and his college friends are ultra-casual about sex, and everyone assumes they're doing it, even though they aren't. This is handled pretty well, actually, Melissa isn't casting judgment on anyone who is or thinks she is. Yay Melissa! Not being ready to have sex doesn't make her anti-sex, so I'm totally behind her.

Ric, though, is another story:
[After some making out.] "Let's go inside," she said to him while her mind swirled and spun with the sensations his touch was arousing."

"All right," he said, his voice husky. "But I won't always let you back off this way, Melissa. I'm not some high school kid, and I know what I want."
Melissa doesn't knee him in the groin like she should, she's just all, yeahhhh I understand. This is so gross. "Won't always let you back off"? Does that translate to "sooner or later I'm gonna rape you"? This is so wrong; I can't believe this is accepted. If I was writing this book, Melissa and Jory would team up to teach Ric a lesson about threatening girls with sex. Also, how does that make any girl actually WANT to do it? Ric, I hope the next time you try that line on a girl she shows you what's what.

So Ric asks Melissa away for Spring Break, and this is what he says:
"Ric... I don't--" She stopped, groping for the right words. "I mean... I've never...."

"I know you haven't, Melissa. But when you do, I want it to be with me."
OH MY GOD RIC YOU ARE SO FUCKING CREEPY. He couldn't phrase it in a way that suggests he actually wants to have sex with Melissa, noooo, he wants Melissa to give it up to him. Helloooo control issues. Ric is so getting sued for sexual harassment at a future job.

Melissa thinks it over and decides against it. I wish I could say that's because she realizes Ric is a disgusting control freak who thinks he can use force to get what he wants, but, no:
"Before I got leukemia, I had so many plans. I wanted to make the Brain Bowl team--no junior has ever made the final panel. I wanted to be a National Merit Scholar. I wanted to go to college and study law. I wanted so many things, Ric."

. . .

"But I still want those things, Ric. In spite of everything that's happened."

"What's that got to do with our spending the weekend together?"

"You aren't my only option in life, Ric. Please don't make me your only one."
Okay, I half-agree with her. Ric is all basically "YOU MUST BE WITH ME BECAUSE OF THE CANCER CANCER CANCER WE ARE EACH OTHER'S ONLY OPTIONSSSS" and that is NO reason to be in a relationship. That said, I have it on good authority you can have sex in high school and still GO TO COLLEGE and STUDY LAW. The implication sex limits your options is so, so wrong and soooo anti-sex I want to puke. After so many really refreshing mentions of sex in this book, I was so annoyed to have it all come down to SEX IN HIGH SCHOOL IS BAD EVEN IF YOU WANT TO AND TAKE PRECAUTIONS. Ugh, Lurlene, you've let me down yet again!

Melissa fights to stay on the Brain Bowl team, and wins, and is all set for her first big match. Jory shows up to go with her, and Melissa's thrilled Jory has traded in her funky clothes for "polished sophistication". Ugh. Jory's sixteen! Isn't it too early to worry about such things, honestly? If there are any sixteen-year-olds reading this, revel in your time to wear whatever you want, okay? A few short years from now you could be stuck in corporate dress-code hell, and you're going to really regret the years lost to polished sophistication.

Jory presents Melissa with a gift, which is a super-expensive wig made of human hair (ew, paging Chris March!) that looks just like her old hair. I do wish the lesson learned could have been that Melissa is just as beautiful without it, but, whatever, it's the sweetest thing in the world that Jory did it for her. And on that note, the book ends. OH MY GOD MELISSA SURVIVED! Smart move being the protag, Melissa. Knowing your BFF narrates the sequel, I'm a bit concerned.


Anonymous said...

Is Lurlene a V.C. Andrews fan? Between the creepy brother/sister thing and the name "Jory"...

Haha, yeah! I, too, remember noticing the sexuality in this book! (As well as the hot, under-the-shirt action in the sequel). But even my 14-year-old self wasn't convinced that a hot air balloon ride would be "almost better than sex." Haha. Also, did Lurlene think we wouldn't notice that a lot of the college-age kids in this book were having sex while they were still, you know, IN COLLEGE? Sigh.

Props though to positive, close female friendship. Jory rocks!

ames said...

Oh my god, I totally forgot about the under-the-shirt action!! That probably informed all the stuff I wrote back then, where second base was totes HUUUUGE and girls would shriek and be all "HOW DARE HE?" Geez, I had no idea who was to blame for that weird quirk of mine back then; good to know I can now thank Lurlene.

It's such a weird book, sexuality-wise, because obviously on one hand it's presented as something normal college kids do, but it's also something that can DERAIL YOUR ENTIRE LIFE. You can't have it both ways, Lurlene. That said, Ric was so creepy I'm glad she didn't have sex with him! You know he would have done weird things like chant "I'm the best you'll ever have, I'm the best you'll ever have". Gross gross gross, why did I have to start imagining that?

I do really love Melissa and Jory's friendship. I can find absolutely no fault with it, and at sixteen I would have totally gotten along with them. Maybe I could have borrowed Jory's hair paint!

snappleaddict said...

I love this book! I think it may be one of my fave Lurlene books.

I think I have the old cover, but I'm not sure. Here's a scan, feel free to use it if you want:

I always wondered, is that Ric clutching Melissa's shoulder possessively, or is it Michael about to determine she's still a virgin? Either way, that shit is creepy.

snappleaddict said...

Shit, it cut off the end of my link. It should say /snappleaddict/lurlenetytd.jpg

ames said...

Yes, that's it!! I just updated the post with it, thank you SO much!

snappleaddict said...

No problem! I have the old version of Jory's book, too, so just let me know if you need it!

Sophia said...

I'm ashamed to admit I was a Melissa once upon a time...I once believed you can't go to college and law school if you have a boyfriend...though I also wasn't freaky as her and scored in the 98th percentile on my PSATs. But I think that was just stupidity on my part.

But I am proud to say I am graduating from college in June and guess what Lurlene?! I had a boyfriend all throughout college and my grades are great! Take that, Lurlene!

ames said...

snappleaddict, thanks! I think I ran across old-school Jory when I was searching for this one, but if not I'll let you know. Also, will you drop me an email? I have a lame question re: something you mentioned in your OLW recap, and I can't find your email address on your blog.

Sophia, I probably also thought something like that in high school, which was fine because I wasn't exactly overloaded with offers from fine young gentlemen. Lurlene's takes on relationship stuff are so weird though! Like if sex is so bad, why is giving up college to stay near your guy okay? Doesn't that actually take a lot more time than doin' it? Geez. I'm frightened to wonder how much of this "advice" I internalized.

Jujube said...

These books are so depressing. And this one was kinda freaky...

Anonymous said...

I got a mention! Rockin'! I loved this book, this was also my first post Dawn Rochelle Lurlene. I read the sequel first actually, so went into this one knowing how bad things would be fore Melissa. I remember being creeped the hell out by Ric but oddly attracted to Michael.

dorito addict said...

So, is it wrong that I remember that when Jory had the sleepover at her house, she had it all done up like a sultan's tent with pillows all over the floor and silk nighties for her and Melissa?

And is it wrong that to this day I still want to have a sultan's themed sleepover wtih my friends(I'm 29, BTW)?

I also remember very clearly how Ric made Melissa feel while making out with her... It was somehting about feeling like silk inside. What the eff is that about?

ames said...

Robyn, that whole harem sleepover is so weird, right? Seriously, it's like EVERYTHING in this book is about sex. Except there ISN'T any sex actually HAPPENING. It's bizarre.

Also, wait, you AREN'T supposed to feel like silk inside? Oh noes, maybe I'm doing it wrong! LURLENE LED ME ASTRAY.