With prose on fire, R. A. Nelson writes about what happens
when a not-quite-adult woman experiences a very adult
relationship with her senior high school English teacher.
Nine (Carolina mispronounced) is a teenager in the old
tradition – she’s an intellectual, peppering her intense
conversation with references to Greek literature, quantum
physics, astronomy, and, as a result of Mr. Mann’s English
class, poetry. Far beyond her peers in both intelligence and
interests, Nine has only one friend, Schuyler, a boy with
his own set of awkward talents. Like chess. One of their
games: making obscure quotes the other has only moments to
Their closeness shatters when Nine’s crush on her English
teacher evolves into a mutual love affair complete with
sexual intercourse (but only after her eighteenth birthday).
Nine has never felt this way before: in love, open to other
people, happy. She leaves her best friend behind in favor of
a passionate, enigmatic romance that first drives her crazy
in a good way and then drives her crazy in a bad way.
Because, of course, it ends, roughly, and suddenly Nine
needs resources she does not yet have, she needs detachment
and acceptance and reason beyond her desire. Being eighteen
and protected by a traditional family in a small Southern
town, she has not had a chance to develop these assets. Or
maybe they’re not assets but a lack; perhaps we would all be
better off experiencing to the ultimate degree, maybe then
we’d have enough energy to make the world a better place.
Nine’s reaction to the demise of her first romantic
relationship is perhaps more extreme than many of the rest
of us have experienced, but not only because of her age. She
refers to a sucking sensation that afflicts her occasionally
even before she meets Mr. Mann, a whining sense that she is
meant for more than the stained classrooms and dull-eyed
classmates that surround her. She’s a sensitive, intense
person – part of what draws Mr. Mann to her.
While many critics label this a story about molestation, I
believe the crux of the book lies in Nine’s relationship
with Schuyler, and with her parents. They are the ones
watching while she sinks rapidly into a state of active
despair, they are the ones who try to help her in their own
ineffective way. They are the ones standing by when Nine
makes her final self-rescue. Nine is not truly molested
beyond the technical details: teacher sleeps with student.
The balance of power does not tip to Mr. Mann because of his
status as teacher, but because of his status as male,
because he is the one with the most to lose, and he bails
first. And in the end, Nine is the one wielding the weapon
to convince her teacher, her lover, to give her what he
wants the most: a reason. A gifted scientist, she only
really wants the truth behind the reason he left her.
Nelson’s strength lies in pushing through the
superficial shock value of his plot. Instead of getting
stuck on reaction and repercussions for the community,
school, and society, Nelson delves deeper into Nine’s
character and reveals a young woman with a huge range of
emotion and ability, not someone who garners much sympathy.
Nine has no use for our sympathy. She wants our attention,
she wants the reader to judge her by her actions and
motives, not by her age or status as a high school student.
Nelson has managed to write a character that transcends the
boundaries of logistics. I appreciate these layers. Nine is
one of those characters I wish I could know in real life,
someone I wish, sometimes, I could have been.
||Andi Diehn/2005 for curled
up with a good kid's book
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