Thursday, August 16, 2012

Nina: Adolescence by Amy Hassinger (2003)

My dear friend Joy, an aspiring writer (and author of an awesome food blog), lent this book to me.  The neat thing about it is that Joy has actually met the author, Amy Hassinger, who lives in the same midwest university town as she does!  And she said Amy's book was excellent. 

One of my favorite things are first novels.  I admire so much the faith it must take to fully commit to a cast of characters, a story line, and the ideas you yearn to express, and find a way to bring it full circle to a manuscript worthy of attention from an agent, an editor, a publishing house - the whole process seems magical and somehow miraculous to me.  And like a firstborn child makes you a mother, your first novel will always be your first novel, the one that made you a novelist.

This book is about motherhood.  It is also about adolescence and being a good daughter, and how that can sometimes destroy you. 

Nina sacrifices herself by posing nude so that her mother can produce a series of portraits for an important come-back show at a gallery.  Nina's hope is that by getting her to paint again, her mother will be able to break free of the depression she has been imprisoned by ever since her son, Nina's little brother, died tragically.  Nina feels responsible for her brother's death and so it seems the posing is a way for her to do penance as well as save her mother.

The paintings and the gallery show take a toll on Nina and both her parents in ways they never could have expected.  My feeling is that none of them were prepared for the ways in which their lives changed, and that partially explains why they fumbled so badly in dealing with things as they unfolded.  Like so many of us, Nina and her parents were just trying to do their best based on what worked in the past, forgetting that things had changed fundamentally forever and their old patterns of reacting were not going to work anymore.

Nina's father continued to defer to his wife out of fear for her fragility and the passivity of his own grief, where he should have much more vehemently defended his daughter and demanded respect for their family life.  Nina's mother selfishly allowed herself to be so consumed by her own grief that she was incapable of seeing what the consequences were for her firstborn; whereas she should have never accepted her daughter to sacrifice so much.  And Nina, in the face of so much indifference from her parents, tried bravely to play a role that was beyond her responsiblity and quite naturally, it all went wrong in the end. 

Nina tries to lose herself in ballet, in anorexia, in her first sexual encounter that sadly takes place in a sick relationship that has more to do with child abuse than mutual you read the book, you begin to fear more and more for her safety and start to believe that things are going to go very wrong for this family.

Amy Hassinger inhabits Nina's skin with grace and allows the reader to feel great empathy for this child who has not been able to count on her parents very much and has tried so hard to sort things out on her own.  She also conveys the grief of Nina's parents without making them tragic cut-out figures...they clearly have their own faults and blind spots and in fact it is very difficult to feel sympathy for the mother.

This is an excellent and very well-written, but not easy or even always pleasant book.  It reminded me what it felt like be an insecure adolescent girl.  It also made me think a lot about the nature of parenthood and the ways in which we as parents have a responsibility to be fair to our children, and not expect things of them that they should not have to sacrifice for us.  Thank you, Joy, for sharing it with me.

NB: Amy Hassinger also has a blog, which I've added to my sidebar...funnily enough I've got the novel she most recently blogged about (The Voyage Out by Virgina Woolf) on my nightstand next in line to be read! 

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