Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Ending of Alice

In some ways, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Alice books strike me as the Maisy books for teenagers. When you go to preschool like Maisy, you will have naptime, and you'll put on your coat to go outside, and you'll go to the bathroom with your class, and don't forget to wash your hands! When you go through adolescence like Alice, you'll have a whole list of new experiences, and don't forget to be careful! The Maisy books are most noteworthy for the comforting way they use appealing characters to talk children through what life is going to be like. They're exactly what very young children need sometimes, especially when they don't quite have the words to ask about what they don't understand.

Whether or not they have the words, adolescents don't necessarily feel equipped to ask their questions. Much like Maisy, Alice serves as a comforting and informative presence and, as is appropriate for her readers, often does her learning through hilarious stories, or at least ridiculously awkward conversations with her older brother. (Naylor says that of all the major characters, Lester is the one who comes most from her imagination, and I think he's one of the strongest characters.) This isn't the first time I've read an Alice book in (early) honor of Banned Books Week, and these books are a perfect demonstration of how books can responsibly show things that might make parents nervous. These books show the full spectrum, from characters who want all the sex and drugs and rock and roll they can get to characters who would rather run and hide from all of the above, and everyone's personal speed is normal. Sometimes the books get preachy. Sometimes they get downright Afterschool Special-y. But there's always something funny enough or tender enough coming up to make it worth reading to the next chapter.









(There was Alice-level agony in resisting a comma after below in that sentence.)

The good: It's no particular surprise that Alice marries Patrick, whether or not it's realistic, but I'm very glad it doesn't happen in a fairytale way. Both have other relationships beforehand, and Alice even breaks an engagement with someone else. Even better, though their marriage is mostly happy, the wedding doesn't constitute a "happily ever after" ending. They have another thirty-plus years of the book to get through, and we see arguments and even moments when infidelity is a possibility. Naylor talks readers through birth control, sex, and labor the same way she talked them through periods and bras, but she keeps the narrative moving. (She has to. She has decades to cover.) I also really like that Alice becomes a school counselor. It gives some believability to her level of investment in everyone else's life, which otherwise one might write off as a necessary stretch in a first-person series that tells lots of people's stories.

The questionable: Throughout the series, there are times when Alice's voice seems to give way to the author's, and that happens more here. The last third of the book covers what's probably the bulk of Alice's married life, which means picking a very few memories to represent a long period of time. (Facebook is a constant presence over those years, which would make the timeline feel more like a treadmill even if there weren't eighties references in the time capsule Alice and her seventh-grade classmates open at age sixty.) Many of the choices work - exchanges with Alice's daughter Patricia, in particular, mirror the earlier books well, and I could practically hear Patricia's eyes rolling when appropriate. But much of the book is necessarily episodic, and that only works if the episode is interesting enough to relate. Little Tyler spitting in his urine sample and making everyone think he's seriously ill? Worth including. Alice fainting on the family trip to London? That's more the sort of story one tells at a dinner party than the sort one includes in a novel, unless there are larger health implications that have later bearing (there aren't).

The definite: These books have been in and out of my life for two thirds of it, and I'm glad of that. I still remember that after I read one in third grade, my mother asked me - asked, not told - to hold off on reading more until I was a bit older, and I set and stuck to my own plan: "I'll wait until fifth grade." That felt very grown-up, and though it's no more exciting than, say, fainting on a trip to London, it's a memory I come back to whenever the subject of censorship comes up. As the novel's original title puts it, always Alice.