Sunday, April 1, 2012

YA Book Review: Hey, Dollface by Deborah Hautzig

Hey, Dollface  by Deborah Hautzig is a story about two girls who love each other, but aren't quite sure how. It's a lovely book and I recommend it to younger teens, from 10-16.

A small paperback that I've read half a dozen times growing up, it's a sweet and simple story about two girls hitting puberty who become the closest of friends. So close, that they overlap into the realm of the sexual - at least in the minds of those around them. I'd actually recommend it over Annie On My Mind [review] (though that one's good for older teens, with more sexual content and older protagonists, so actually, they'd complement each other pretty well).

Val and Chloe are both fifteen, in the same school in New York. Neither girl really likes their fancy school, and together they disappear to cemeteries and thrift shops, and become best friends. But they're both growing up, and shy Val is starting to get  feelings.

Chloe's parents are an mismatched pair; her father is very sick and quiet, and her mother is stressed, entitled and a little difficult to deal with. Val's family is pretty normal, Jewish, with a TV addict little brother, and a cello playing father, but not even her mother can answer all her questions about growing up, and sex. Which leaves talking it over with Chloe.
Most of the book follows Val along as she and Chloe bond over despising their school, talking about fashion and beauty (concepts of) and around the edges of what sex is and what grown ups do, and wandering New York and talking endlessly on sleepovers. Gradually, they get closer and closer, seeking out excuses for physical contact, but it's very natural seeming and understated. Chloe is also partly seduced by the father of a boy she babysits (it doesn't get too far, fortunately) and is definitely attracted to boys, as her own attraction to Chloe mounts, so she's confirmedly bisexual. We never get into Chloe's head, but she doesn't seem interested in boys at all, and does seem interested in Val.

It was set in 1970s New York, and occasionally this showed, but not much. Actually, the most dated part was the way the word 'bisexual' never came up, with everything being framed as 'heterosexual with homosexual fantasies'. Which could have been exactly what they were, but the possibility of being bisexual would have been helpful.

There were definitely some darker topics covered, including two family deaths, frequent mention of drugs (by the other girls at their school), two attempted seductions by married men and an abusive live-in job situation. They were all handled well,  and the girls' friendship was an underlying foundation to it all.

Finally, a semi-innocent sleepover causes forces the girls to confront what lies between them. The actual salacious activity in question was mostly a bit of quiet ogling, some confused thoughts, and finally some *gasp* groping-slash-innocent cuddling (depending on your perspective). It read as slightly racier when I was younger, during the time when sex was a mysterious unknown, but is actually very tame. I was probably twelve when I first read it.

Neither girl is really that interested in experimenting, but it is left open that they might go that way. Or they might not. Neither girl even really considers themselves sexually attracted to the other (or is really aware that it is a possibility) until after they're forced to confront the chemistry between them. And then it's too late to casually explore. So it is left vague as to whether they were just 'too' close, were naturally interested in the development of the female body and what happened with other girls, or were actually fumbling on the edge of sexual exploration.

I did wish the book had been longer, that we might have followed them into the future, but by cutting it off where she did, the author kept it as a fairly innocent story of leaving childhood and the ambiguity of the boundaries of different kinds of love. Once they were aware of the directions it could go (sisterly, passionate, friendship), it became a different story. One we didn't get to read about. It wasn't actually a short book; it spanned a whole year of their lives and packed a lot in, but it wasn't one I wanted to end.

But in summary, a gentle and well written book about growing up and friendship, sexuality, beauty, maturity and the possibility of lesbianism. And while it was published in 1978, it doesn't feel particularly dated. Rereading it, it packs an awful lot in and I recognise some of the conversations that resounded through my teenage years about appearance and fitting in and making friends, as well as helping to define where to start asking questions about sex and sexuality.

Buying Hey, Dollface
Hey, Dollface has been republished about four times (and is finally available on Kindle), but I still much prefer the original cover (photographed from my copy, on far left).

Hey, Dollface

The covers:Greenwillow Books (1978); Bantam Books (1980); Borzoi Sprinters (1989); Marshall Cavendish Children's Books (2010)

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