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Expecting tells the story of Sheila, a 14-year-old girl living in the American Midwest who becomes pregnant as a result of acquaintance rape at a party. Sheila is a smart and talented girl with dreams of becoming a classical pianist, but her ultraconservative, religious mother refuses to sign the consent form that would allow her to get an abortion. Consent is required because Sheila lives in an alternative universe in which McCain-Palin took the White House in 2008, McCain kicked the bucket, and Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann now run our fair country. Sheila writes of the election:
“It is strange how, back in November of 2008, I remember feeling oddly pleased (in spite of myself and my lefty liberalism) at the fact that Sarah Palin, in all her Advanced Maternal Age baby-making, pre-menopausal, fertile femaleness, had just become the Vice President-elect of the United States of America. I was quietly proud of Vice President Palin in her moment of victory, and not because I agree with her politics, but in more of a hos-before-bros sort of way if you will.”
As you can see, the book is written in journal form, from Sheila’s point of view, and is very funny. Sheila is preternaturally intelligent and aware of the world and adults around her, and at times I wished she’d been cast as a 16 year old or some age that more befitted her maturity and insight. Yet her insistence on dressing as Lady Gaga and painting “BORN THIS WAY” on her exposed belly at Halloween speaks to her point in life as a girl straddling the fence between innocence and adulthood. At times, Sheila’s booksmarts are a bit incredulous, but overall, she’s so likeable that you can forgive her and read her as a sort of Sorkinian teen. She reminded me of the smart and sarcastic characters in John Green’s YA novels: she may not always come across as realistic, but she’s a sort of fantasy of what an awesome 14yo would be like, and that can be satisfying.
What I especially appreciated about Belle’s book is that her characters are complex and nothing is ever black or white. For example, although Belle is clearly critical of the anti-abortion policies that force Sheila into premature motherhood, she also has Palin pass the Fair Pay Act and institute childcare support for working Moms. While I didn’t always understand why this alternative history construct was necessary to tell what is otherwise a great family story, it is an amusing and interesting exploration of what might have been, and not at all a tale of our doom at the hands of the Republicans.
Likewise, Sheila’s ultraconservative mother, called “Map” (that’s Pam in reverse, a nickname Sheila and her sister use to drive their mother crazy), could have been written as an ogre, as a fool, as a witch. But she is a complex and nuanced character, and part of Sheila’s journey comes from understanding how her Mom came to be the person she did. I definitely remember becoming aware of my parents as actual human beings at that age, and Sheila’s alternation between a childlike need for her mother’s love and approval, and aggravation and indignance at her hypocrisy and control, feel totally accurate. Map refuses to allow Sheila an abortion, but she holds her daughter’s hand and cheers her on through labor. Sheila is surrounded by women with rich inner lives, and through these relationships, she charts these uncertain waters with something close to grace and humor. At Thanksgiving, she has this to say while sitting at the table with her family, just after her mother has left the room in anger:
”I look at James, at Susan, at my Dad and at my two grandmothers and see them looking back at me. I throw my head back and fall into a gutshaking, baby-bouncing, heartfilling laugh. Then they all laugh along with me, enjoying the great release. Grandma Johnson and Grandma Martin are laughing so hard they’re crying.
All at once, I feel surrounded by love and the feeling that, for the first time in a long time, everything is going to be all right. If I’m lucky enough to live for a long time like they have, I understand now that the moments in life I regret – being raped and pregnant at fourteen, etcetera – will eventually feel less and less like fresh wounds and become more like the tattoos of experience.”
At times, suspending disbelief was hard for me while reading Expecting, but I think I would have very much enjoyed this as a teen and considered Sheila something of a hero (plus you should know that I’m an unnecessarily critical reader: I get annoyed with Jerry Spinelli and John Green at times, so other people may be able to embrace this world much more readily than I). It would be a fun book club read. Read a longer excerpt and more at Lula Belle’s website.