Like many teenager narcissists, Flannery Jansen thinks that she’s a special and unique sunflower “alongside such sour-souled people” as those she has to attend class and live with at college. By her own theory, “They were all planning to laugh at her, clearly, every single day, until she finally gave in and went back to the land of computers and eucalyptus, where everyone wanted you—sincerely—to have a nice day.” It’s a bit like the problem expressed so succinctly and beautifully in XKCD:
Alas, she’s probably not right, and we find out why in Pages For You, a novel that I want to be better than it is. The story follows Flannery as she chases and acquires Anne, a 28-year-old grad student in English whose idea of a good time is having or encouraging Flannery to write short quasi-diary entries about their relationship, and these pages form for the pages of the novel—the “you” in the title being Anne. The novel is written almost pornographically, in spurts that are supposed to represent Flannery’s daily writing assignments or letters to Anne.
As often happens to teenage narcissists—are we sensing a pattern here?—”Flannery had nothing to do but watch that mouth smoking, and though she couldn’t have said why it was so beautiful or described the thrill of its shape—she was too young to have anything like a vocabulary for such things—she could not stop herself from watching it, shaded a darkish persimmon that left its trace on the cigarette.” I like a nice mouth too, and having the vocabulary to describe it, but by the time I acquired the vocabulary to describe such a mouth I no longer needed said vocabulary. And smoking isn’t attractive. Even so, I like the phrase “shaded a darkish persimmon” enough that it saves the sentence from being turgid. Much of Pages For You feels like it’s about to become tedious, and then a moment later it recovers.
Take this description: Flannery stands “over a rickety kitchen table that had been flash-flooded with alcohol,” which so perfectly captures what those equally unruly college parties are like, with their sticky counters that were at least somewhat clean a few hours prior and probably won’t be clean again till much later. Long sections are oddly flat and affectless (“Flannery bundled up her items and took them away to the bookstore/cafe where she intended to enjoy them slowly, with a cup of decent coffee…”), but at least Pages For You is unusual in that it deals with a female/female romance, rather than the usual boy-meets-girl or vice-versa, then loses said boy/girl. It’s also refreshingly free of the professor-sex-plot machinations that drive many campus novels, like Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (which, to be fair, transcends its sex plot), or Bernard Malamud’s A New Life.
I like or want to like Flannery, who, even though she’s writing this at some point in the future, still doesn’t get who she was. But “Flannery did not know New York except as a movie and a myth,” much like me before I visited. And now I’d like to live there, if only it weren’t so damn expensive.
Chapters end before they really get going: that’s the major drawback for a novel structured like Pages for You, and the unusual form doesn’t have enough to do with the content to justify it. In another blow for equality, I’ve discovered something that I’ve always suspected: lesbian romances can be just as boring as their heterosexual counterparts for those not immediately involved in them. That being said, I like a coming-of-age story as much as the next fellow, and I rolled with this one to the last page, waiting for those phrases—”flash-flooded with alcohol”—that made me look again. And I kept waiting for Flannery to want something more than action and meaning, but the flash-floods of those epiphanies, alas, weren’t readily forthcoming.