I have a love/hate relationship with Joyce Carol Oates. Sometimes I read her and after I’ve settled into the odd rhythm of her writing I think, yeah, that was pretty good (We Were the Mulvaneys; Beasts) and then sometimes I read her work and think, that was a lot of effort for nothing (Rape: A Love Story) and then there’s this time, when I read Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You and about two thirds of the way in I thought, what the hell just happened?
Merissa Carmichael has just been accepted into Brown, her first Ivy League choice. Merissa, M’rissa to her friends, has it all going on: good students, good athlete, good friend, pretty and popular, but she is also deeply troubled.
…in the little bathroom adjoining her room, with trembling hands – trembling with excitement, anticipation! – opening a drawer beside the sink, and, at the very back of the drawer, seizing the handle of a small but very sharp paring knife – bringing out the knife, and pressing its tip against the inside of her wrist, where the skin was pale and thin…
Nadia Stillinger, Merissa’s friend, “hadn’t a chance of getting into Brown, or any Ivy League university” has her own problems including a father who works too much and a too young step-mother. She’s fat, too, weighing in at a whopping 119 pounds. And everyone knew that it was “utterly, utterly disgusting to be fat.”
The one thing Nadia and Merissa share is Tink, the child-star who moved to their town of Quaker Heights, New Jersey during their junior year. Tink is a “short, fiery-haired girl” whose “face was pale and plain, as if it had been scrubbed, and even her freckles looked bleached.” She’s unlike any other girl at Quaker Heights High. She talks back to teachers, doesn’t give a rat’s ass for fashion and doesn’t even seem all that interested in making friends, which is why the girls in Merissa’s circle so desperately want to fly in Tink’s orbit. She seems fearless. Until she kills herself – which actually happens before the story begins – so much of the story is told in flashback.
Two Or Three Things I Forgot To Tell You isn’t your average YA novel. First of all, the narrative is Joyce Carol Oates wacky. The narrator is one of the girls – but not Merissa and not Nadia and not Tink. Lots of personal pronouns, though, like “We were stunned” and “We laughed because Tink laughed”. Still, the first part of the novel is tightly focused on Merissa and her penchant for cutting and the trauma of her parents’ crumbling marriage. Then, Merissa is abandoned (presumably in a much better emotional place than when we meet her) and the focus switches to Nadia and her problems – mostly to do with an incident at a party and her inappropriate feelings for her kind (and handsome) Science teacher.
You either get used to the way Oates writes or you don’t. This book is rife with parentheses and asides couched in dashes. Perhaps the writing is meant to mimic the frenetic minds of its characters, but whatever the case I read the novel quickly. I can’t say I didn’t like it, but I can’t say I loved it, either. There is potential for discussion because the book is topical and in many ways captures the complicated and fraught time in a young woman’s life just before she is about to step over that imaginary line into adulthood. Sadly, some don’t make it.