Saturday, April 9, 2016

Up in Seth's Room (1979) by Norma Fox Mazer

Norma Fox Mazer was one of my favorite young adult authors. So much so that I've read almost everything she wrote in her career, which sadly ended with her death in 2009. [Also just found out that her husband and writing partner, Harry Mazer, died a couple of days before I posted this.] I first read After the Rain as a teenager and I felt I could relate to that character so much more so than other characters I had read about. Rachel (in After the Rain) was a youngest child like I was at the time with much older siblings (though mine were all halves) and she felt isolated due to her social awkwardness, though this wasn't played to the extreme nor was it the focus of the story.

Up in Seth's Room was the second Norma Fox Mazer book I read. I held off a long time reading another one of her books because I was sure I wouldn't like it as much as After the Rain. But, though the story is kind of silly (about a girl hanging on to her technical virginity), I grew to love Finn, the protagonist of this novel even more than Rachel. Finn is also slightly awkward (like most teenagers), but she doesn't back down from her beliefs or let anyone push her around. So even if you don't agree with her stance on not going all the way sexually, you have to admire her grit and determination.

The book opens with Finn on her way to visit her older sister Maggie, who has been disowned by their parents because she has moved in with her boyfriend without getting married first. Remember when that was a big sin? Me neither, really, but apparently living together before marriage was as much of a deal breaker for some of the older generation back then as a child coming out as gay is today.

Finn is hoping to have a talk with Maggie alone like they used to before Maggie moved out, but Maggie has friends there: her boyfriend, Jim's, brother Seth and a girl named Toby who appears to consider herself Seth's girlfriend, though he doesn't act all that into her. Finn is immediately attracted to Seth, though she considers him "tooo, tooo, too good-looking." Finn gets into an argument with Maggie when they discuss their parents and Seth seems to enjoy watching this for some reason.

That night, Finn goes to a New Year's Eve party with her best friend Vida, who tries to set her up with Jerry, a flirtatious boy from school. Jerry is kind of a creepy guy in training. He makes everything he says sound suggestive. Finn isn't into him, but she's feeling high off the spiked punch, so there are some amusing scenes where she is giggly and in a haze, going along with Jerry's advances.

The next day, Maggie invites Finn to go with her to watch Jim and Seth do the New Year's Polar Bear Jump thing. Jim turns out to be kind of a jerk, criticizing Seth about his jobs and the trouble he's been in with their father. Finn learns that Seth wants to be a farmer someday and the two later bond over a checker game.

In school, Finn builds up her relationship with Seth to Vida, who is disappointed Finn didn't fall for Jerry. A girl called Nancy overhears all this. Nancy's a little weird and not all that believable as a character. She seems to be jealous of Finn and floats around her with silly comments and criticism. After school, Finn sees Seth driving by in Maggie's green Volkswagon and impulsively jumps in front of the car and demands he drive her home. Seth seems really distant and Finn thinks he's trying to remember her name. In reality, he's been applying for jobs and is depressed about being rejected. Embarrassed, Finn stumbles out of the car leaving a bewildered Seth in her wake.

A couple of weeks later Finn is studying at the library, daydreaming about Seth, when, like often happens in a YA book but not in real life, he suddenly appears. Finn learns there's more to Seth than just his good looks. He's looking for something to read. They talk for a while about some book I've never heard of that "everyone knows about" and Finn's mind is reeling adorably...she goes back and forth between being snippy with him to being dazzled by him...when somehow it gets through to her that he's just asked her out to the movies Friday. 

Finn does a lot of extra chores to prepare to ask her mother's permission to go on the movie date. (If she really wanted to go why is she asking? It's pretty obvious the answer will be no.) She ends up asking her mother as they are driving home in the snow from buying her mother platform shoes in the worst possible way, mentioning his age, his being Jim's brother and his status as a high school drop out. The mother swerves the car and we find out Finn is short for "Finnis." Finn goes to the Apple Cafeteria where Seth works to tell him she can't go and for the first time Seth learns that Finn is only fifteen.

I can only assume this is the 80s cover version
Finn gets so upset over the incident that she makes herself sick enough to stay home from school. She is partially miffed that Seth balked at the idea of dating a fifteen year old. Maybe he was worried about the statutory rape charges? Which is a weird thought considering what comes later in the book.

The toilet overflows while Finn's home alone and she calls for Maggie to come fix it (she has a habit of running to Maggie or someone when there's a problem). Maggie and Jim come over and fix the toilet when (surprise surprise) the mother comes home early from work and catches them. At first she acts cold toward the pair, but (as she is the softer of the parents on this issue) she eventually invites them to sit down and eat cheese and crackers.

There's a Fleetwood Forest (Fleetwood Mac?) concert coming up at the Syracuse War Memorial and Vida encourages Finn and Jerry (who is still trying to get into Finn's pants) to go with her and her boyfriend Paul. Jerry can't go because he has a basketball game that night, and Finn's not that disappointed because she is still mooning over Seth. At the concert, it is announced that Fleetwood Forest couldn't make it because of the blizzard that's currently going on.

Finn goes to look for her friends who've gotten away from her, when, in a slightly too convenient coincidence (there are thousands of people at the concert), she runs into Seth. Finn is still pissed at Seth for some reason and he apologizes even though he really didn't do anything wrong (yet). Finn uses a payphone to call her mother to come pick her up and Seth asks to stay with her until she arrives.

Seth tells Finn that he admires her fierce attitude and how well she puts up a fight - which is something he won't like so much later in the book. He talks a bit about his father and how he won't fight no matter how mad he gets. Finn and Seth have their first kiss right as Finn's mother pulls up and Finn thinks to herself that she's in love.

Finn's parents once again forbid her to see Seth and hang up the phone when Seth tries to call but Finn decides she's not going to listen. We also hear again about how Finn has vowed not to have intercourse until she's older. She's learned in a Family Life class at school that sex isn't just intercourse, but that there are other things that can be done...she reasons that her mother waited to have sex and her parents have a good marriage.

Finn skips school to visit Seth at his job, which irritates his boss. They also meet at the movie theater, with Finn using Vida as her alibi. Jerry comes to Finn's house unexpectedly and tries to force her to date him again. Maggie tries to get on her mother's good side by refusing to help Finn see Seth. She dismisses Finn's feelings as being a mere crush and unimportant. Once again we are reminded of the agony of being fifteen and not having anyone take you seriously.

Finn and Seth sneak off to the Historical Society to be alone, and here is where we come to the main conflict of the story. Seth wants Finn to take off her shirt in the secluded room, but she is uncomfortable doing so. Seth is visibly frustrated with only seeing Finn in the Apple a few times a week, although Finn is satisfied with the intensity of the relationship. Seth broaches the topic of sex quite bluntly, and Finn makes her decision on the subject very clear. "Girls always say no at first," he says. Finn retorts, "I'm not 'girls'! I'm me."

Another day the pair sneak in Jim's and Maggie's apartment where some slightly R rated stuff occurs. Jim comes in (what was the point of them going there if he didn't) and reprimands Seth for quitting his job and bringing an underage girl into the apartment. Seth storms off, and when Finn goes after him he tells her to "bug off." It's hilarious, because she reacts just as strongly as if he'd said "fuck off."

A couple of days pass before they get together again and Seth reveals that he has a new job at a potato chip factory and has rented the attic room that inspired the title of the book. They go to the room and right away Seth is wanting Finn to get in the bed with him. She is hesitant, but finally gives in. She jerks him off in the bed (Mazer uses more eloquent prose) and is very contented with this level of intimacy.

Finn gets home from Seth's hours later than she was supposed to, and her angry parents are waiting for her.  They grill her about where she was and she admits readily that she was with Seth. Her father flies off the handle and hits her in the face. Finn wonders if her father is going to start beating her to keep her from seeing Seth. There was no indication before that the father was violent, and you might think the book is flying off into a different direction, but it actually goes together with what happens later in the book. "It was the most horrible thing in the world to force someone else with physical strength." Finn tells her father that even if he hits her again, she won't be kept from Seth. Finn runs into Maggie in town and they make amends, although Maggie warns her that Seth isn't as nice as he seems at first.

Finn makes up with her parents. It's not an unrealistic scene, it's just kind of unbelievable that they would change their minds about Seth just because Finn cries and tells them she loves them. But they do relent, and Finn goes to visit Seth. That's where things get ugly. The two have their clothes off and are kissing when Seth becomes too forceful and nearly rapes her. When Finn doesn't give in, Seth resorts to emotional abuse, calling the intimate moment they shared before as "shoot[ing] off into the wall." Finn has to fight her way out of the room and runs off.

So I read some reviews on Good Reads and a lot of people really hate this book because of this scene and the fact that (spoilers) she eventually takes him back. I totally understand that. When I was a tween in the early 90s I was a big General Hospital and Luke and Laura fan. I already wrote about this, but in 1979 Luke rapes Laura at the campus disco and that's how their relationship began. When I found out about the rape (it had aired a few months before I was born so I didn't know about it), I immediately stopped shipping Luke and Laura. It just seemed ludicrous to me that someone would marry their rapist and that audiences would go along with that. Yet I don't hate the character of Seth. Maybe it's because I had already grown to like him or because I feel he learned something by the end of the book. Maybe it's also because Mazer makes Finn's near rape look like a bad, ugly thing, while Laura's rape on GH was slightly romanticized. From the same month and year that Up in Seth's Room was first published, check it out:

Luke's declaration of love for Laura just before raping her seems to me like some sort of sick fantasy or twisted way of thinking the writers had. Seth's actions were definitely not motivated by love, and that's made clear. As Finn flees Seth's attic room, she sees everything she thought was beautiful before as ugly. She smells cat pee on the stairs and has noticed that Seth's feet are ugly.

Finn spends the next week or so brooding and being depressed over the situation. Then she goes to visit Seth as he is leaving work at the potato chip factory. It turns out Seth has felt the same way and has written to some friends about a farming job in Vermont. He apologizes to Finn because he had "came on like gangbusters." But then he does partially blame Finn for his actions because she was naked in his bed and let him do other stuff to her. They fight some more and decide to continue on with the relationship.

Maggie has a party to celebrate the year she and Jim have known each other and Finn and Seth have another talk there. This time he opens up a bit more and seems more genuine about his regret of his treatment of Finn. Seth concludes that "there are other things to do that'll make us both feel good."

The final chapter skips ahead a couple of months. Seth comes to pick up Finn from school and takes her to a field on the edge of town. He explains that he's come to say goodbye because he's leaving a month earlier than planned to go work on the farm in Vermont. Finn is predictably upset with this news, even though she knew he was leaving eventually. After a while they take off all their clothes and do something or other...the book uses some corny prose here and doesn't exactly explain what's going on (sorry kids), and Seth drops Finn home and drives off. Before doing so, Finn acknowledges that she'll have other boyfriends...just not for a long time. (So we know she won't turn into a slut like Vida). But...they totally get back together least in my head canon.  

Further Book Notes 

  • Finn's favorite singer is Joni Mitchell. The song Carey is quoted quite often. I actually started listening to Joni's music because of this book. 
  • Mazer could be very good with realistic dialogue, but then she comes out with background characters now and then who speak in ways no one would, especially a teenage boy. A boy Finn talks to at the New Year's Eve party smokes a pipe and tells her she's "looking charming." At a later party a guy tells her she has a "smashing laugh."
  • This was Norma Fox Mazer's response to the Judy Blume novel of a few years before, Forever, in which an eighteen year old girl loses her virginity and then abruptly dumps the guy at the end of the book. Mazer believed that teens should be free to explore their sexuality but that penetration should wait for later years after the adolescent hormones and emotions have died down. Finn is a little younger than Katherine, the protagonist of Forever, so I would agree that it would be best to wait. But teens tend to have tunnel vision when it comes to the future...would Finn really have held out so strongly against Seth? And would his leaving have been any harder had they had actual penis-in-vagina sex?  
  • The ending seems a bit tacked on and rushed, as if Mazer didn't want to end with them together and the reason why wasn't really important. And what about their compromised version of sex. It was uncertain in the next-to-last paragraph if it was going to work out, and the final chapter never really answers that. Also, it's going to be pretty awkward for Seth and Finn if Maggie and Jim stay together and get married. They'll be in-laws and have to see each other at Thanksgiving and stuff. The book never really goes into that either. 
  • Norma Fox Mazer slipped in her old characters into some of her newer books at times, but as far as I know, she never did that for any character in this book, though with the ending the way it was it would've been nice to see what happened.
  • Finn and Vida have a long-standing argument about sex, with Finn being on the side of waiting until she is older. A smart decision, I agree, but again I wonder if her view as a teenager in love would be all that realistic. She and her family don't appear to be religious, this was before the AIDS epidemic (although there was still VD), after free love and easily attainable birth control, and Finn appears to be well-adjusted and affectionate. I just have my doubts that she would have resisted Seth so strongly. It's almost as if the message is that girls don't really want sex and just have to battle against guys who are obsessed with it. Though the bottom line is that no one should be made to do anything they don't want to do, and I think that was communicated successfully in this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment