Carol asked me to review her book for this blog, presenting as a “self-contained, close-range, cut-to-the-quick vignettes, and published in the spring of 2008 by a non-profit literary press, The Widening is an edgily erotic novel; darkly comedic, intimate, haunting, it is told from the point of view of a girl from the end of her high school years into the beginning of college.” I was intrigued, because that’s quite an intriguing description, and said I would be delighted to review the book. It has taken me some time to writing a review of The Widening, though, and I’m not sure why. Even as I write, I am not entirely sure how to say what I want to say about the novel. So please bear with me as I muddle about a bit.
The Widening is written from the protagonist’s perspective, and gives us a story that is at once deeply, almost painful emotional and close to the heart of the girl - and yet she herself seems to drawback from the events, to distance and eventually remove herself completely from the situations the reader finds herself so close to. The events told in the book are primarily painful ones, with the protagonist left unsure of herself and her choices and unable to fully understand the choices of those around her. While I am not sure I would attribute the word erotic to the book, it certainly includes substantial sexuality and sexual activity on the part of the protagonist.
I asked Carol where she thought her book would fit in with my audiences, curious about whether she thought the book appropriate more for a teenage audience or their parents, and here’s what she had to say:
“I agree with you that it’s not written with young people specifically in mind as readers–but on the other hand, a number of college age daughters of of friends of mine have read and liked it, found it illuminating. Some mother-daughters have read it together. One ‘Goodreads’ reviewer mentioned that she wishes she had had it in high school . . . . I think that girls the age of the protagonist might recognize their thought processes or the way they view the world; some might read it as a cautionary tale, or a reflection/articulation of experiences and feelings they have had, whether on a smaller scale or not. It’s been a dilemma: women who came of age at the time of the protagonist relate to it, but I think it has a lot to offer young women (the daughters of those women) as well. I don’t know very much about the more current ‘hook-up’ culture, but have wondered how similar in feeling-tone the experiences are of those young women who consider themselves part of it.”
I do think that the hook-up culture is different now that it was when Carol was coming of age, but the experience of hooking-up may not be that different. I am not sure how many teenagers or young adults would find The Widening an interesting or insightful or captivating read. There are certainly some who would benefit from it - seeing their own feelings or choices mirrored in art along with a sense that some of these issues are generational truths. Or for another kind of young person, seeing a path that is radically different from their own could allow them a space for self-reflection that could be provoking. But I think that perhaps more likely is that a young person would see the protagonist as a peer - a friend - who they were inclined to follow along with or to argue against. Using a delicately written book like this one as a means of self-reflection has great potential for a young person, but reading it and thinking about it as an external force to be reckoned with, which I think is probably a more likely response, has potential for being either simply uninteresting or misguiding.
The place where I see The Widening being a fascinating and notably useful process is in reminding parents what it feels like on an elemental and very personal level to be a teenager, striking out into the world on unsteady feet. This is, of course, just one potential example of what it feels like - but regardless, it is real in a way that few portrayals written by adults are able to capture.
The Widening is a fast read, and a very useful exercise for parents. Set aside a long, quiet evening to yourself and work your way through it. Then come back here and let’s talk about whether you think it is a good book for your teenagers to read and why. If you do decide to pass the book on to them - or to read it together, which has great potential for conversation - I look forward to hearing back from you on what they think about it too!