I find that in a lot of romantic comedies these days, there is always that scene where the female is discussing her past relationships, only to at one point mention her “experimental college phase” that included a relationship or sexual experience with another woman. “Hahaha! Everyone does it! Look how uncomfortable or surprised the man she is currently dating looks right now!” But then I think, is that kind of experience really that common? Do girls always find that one, really intense friendship that leads to them experimenting romantically or sexually? Is it always just a “phase”? For some, obviously it is not. We know that. So why are these experiences so often played up for laughs?
Annie On My Mind deals with two young girls in their last year of high school, discovering a new sort of kinship in each other, that eventually leads to romantic love. It is serious and confusing for them, and in all honesty, it feels real: like a real situation that might happen between two friends that realize maybe their feelings are more than they thought they could be. And although this novel may have some downfalls, it made me think of myself, and some things I have felt in the not-so distant past (well… a few years back, I suppose). So I apologize if you don’t like how personal this review gets; you can turn back now if you don’t care to hear all that, I don’t mind, and it is quite unusual for me. But the main reason that I liked this book was because of the resonance I felt to it.
The main story is told from the point of view of Eliza Winthrop, as she tries to write a letter to her friend, Annie, going over the whole course of their relationship from the past year in her mind. Annie and Eliza are two high school girls from New York, who happened to meet each other one day and become fast friends. Eliza is the student-body president at her private school, while Annie goes to a public school in a not-so-great area of town. Soon after they meet, Eliza finds herself in trouble at school, and is suspended for a few days, leading to her and Annie to be able to spend more time together during the first few days of their friendship. The girls have almost unrestricted freedom with where they go and what they do with their days in the city, and that was weird to me: when I was that age, I never had the chance to just pop out wherever I wanted with a friend, as my parents always wanted to know exactly what was going on at all times. Maybe times are different now, or New York parenting strategies just end up being a bit dissimilar to what I’m used to, given the location? In any case, Annie and Eliza’s bond is intense, and they start to feel more for each other than simple friendship: both girls look at themselves and their pasts, and wonder if they both haven’t been homosexual all along. Eliza, in particular, isn’t sure what to make of her feelings for Annie, but the two girls choose to stay spending all their time together, strengthening their relationship over the course of a few months. They do this in secret, however, as they fear what people might think, and don’t know how to tell their parents.
Later in the year, Eliza volunteers to take care of the home of two of her female teachers while they are away on holiday, only to find that the two women not only live together, but are lesbians as well. Having this empty home to go to for a few weeks, Eliza and Annie feel as though they have a space to call their own, and begin exploring the more physical aspects of their relationship. This leads to them inevitably being found in a compromising position (we knew it had to happen at some point) by one of the other faculty members from Eliza’s strict school. It is at this moment that the truth must come out, and the two girls must address what to do with their relationship now that people are aware that it might not just be two very close friends.
There is no real indication as to what time period this novel takes place, though I would assume that it is contemporary to the early 80s, in which it was first published. That being said, some of the conflicts and inquisitions as to whether or not the lesbian teachers influenced Eliza, --and should even have a place teaching children-- and the overall reaction of people to the girl’s sexualities could be seen as less relevant today, or maybe just slightly dated. It’s true, of course, that some people still fight about how “right” homosexuality is, but nowadays, sexuality isn’t really taken into question in regards to a person’s ability to teach (at least it seems that way here in Canada, as I had an extremely stereotypical gay man as an English teacher in high school, and everyone absolutely adored him as both a man and a teacher). Personal reactions, such as that of Eliza’s mother versus her father, however, are of course still different to every individual. You never really know what people are going to say or how they will react, do you?
The story of Annie On My Mind itself progresses cleanly, if very simply, but stumbles every now and again with the flipping back and forth of telling the girls’ story mixed in with Eliza ruminating on it in the present day. There is also the matter of dialogue, which feels stiff and clumsy at times, especially when Garden is trying to use certain figures to drive a message home or make some kind of speech about their views on the subject: it’s just a little like a direct message of “this is what I think and what you should also maybe think” and not like how a real conversation about those subjects would go.
That being said, the emotion and confusion that Eliza conveys throughout the novel felt very real to me. For some, discovering their sexuality is an epiphany, but for others, it’s a creeping feeling and needs to be explored and considered with time and thought. And what Eliza often expressed, I have felt at some point in my life. So I guess here comes the question: am I gay? No. I don’t think so. But for a little while near the end of high school (and first year out of it) I wondered if I was. Like Eliza, I always felt more comfortable hanging out with guys, and at that point in my life had kissed more females than males. But I didn’t really think that much about it until… until a friend. My Annie? At the time I thought she might be.
Growing up I never really had that close, intimate friendship that Eliza’s mother says every adolescent has at some point, but then came late high school, and my one friend and I became very close; we told each other everything, and sometimes when we drank a little too much at parties (hey hey, drinking age is 18 in this province, it’s okay) we would get close, intimate, and cuddly. And so I thought about myself, and I looked back, just like Eliza did, and wondered if this would make other moments from my past make more sense. Do I like girls? Am I bi? Then another friend of mine tried to start a rumor that I was a lesbian; this rumor went nowhere. But even so, I couldn’t help but wonder if she knew something about myself that I didn’t? I started to question myself seriously, and it hurt me that this friend of mine had been using this facet of who I might possibly be in a negative way. So what if I did like girls? Why was I so worried about the reaction of others, especially those close to me? And more than anything, what did this friend that I thought I was having feelings for think of me? That’s why I had to be sure before I made any declarations about myself, because of my parents and all my others friends and how they might react (just like Eliza and Annie experienced). But I was still insanely attracted to guys. Was it just this one girl, like Annie may have been to Eliza? Was I just searching for some close relationship to hold on to, in the absence of anything even remotely romantic throughout the rest of my life? Adolescence is confusing enough trying to figure out who you are, even without these other questions about what you feel, who you are, or even what people might think of you: especially those close to you. And I feel like Annie On My Mind captures this chaos of emotions and personal questions very well. At least, that’s what it felt like to me, and I couldn’t help but think of myself when I read this book, even if in the end, my self-realization differed from Annie and Eliza’s. I am not homosexual, like these protagonists understand themselves to be, but it was important for me to go through that and consider it. And what happened between my friend and I? While I may have mentioned how much she meant to me, I don’t know if she really understood what I was trying to say. If she did, she didn’t show it, or maybe she just didn’t want to acknowledge that I thought I might have romantic feelings for her. Eventually we grew apart, like friends do, and I tell myself that it’s fine. But what if I had just outright told her I was questioning my sexuality, particularly in regards to her? That’s something I will never know, and at this point in my life, I don’t really need an answer to that question anymore.
Even though I do consider myself to be straight, I don’t dismiss the possibility that there might be someone of my same sex that I fall in love with some day. Sometimes I find females insanely attractive, or wonder what it would be like to date them. And I have still kissed more females than males in my 22 years. But what and who you are is not defined by what you love, and I know that. Annie and Eliza learn that maybe the gender of the person you fall in love with is not important, but the person themselves: it’s about finding someone who you can be real around. Okay, so maybe I don’t like how so many young adult novels try to make you believe that you can find your true love and soul mate in high school, and know that this person will be with you always (I never experienced that, in any case). But even though this book insinuates that same feeling at times, I just feel like the other aspects were so much more important.
I don’t think everyone will feel so strongly connected to this as I did, or maybe it might make you think of some other feelings and issues entirely. In any case, Annie On My Mind is a good book. Sure, there were some problems here and there, and the language wasn’t per say exquisite, but it is still gentle and quite beautiful at times to make up for its imperfections.
[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]