Top critical review
Admittedly dated, this coming of age discovery of lesbian love still has relevance to today's teenagers.. A lovely read,
on 21 August 2017
Reading Annie on My Mind in 2017, what was once considered a groundbreaking coming of age novel on its publication in 1982 admittedly feels incredibly dated. Thankfully attitudes have mellowed, albeit much too slowly, but besides the abhorrent treatment and an appreciation of progress made, the emotions of the story are still very true. Whilst the actual specifics and details may be markedly different for today's teenagers, the ensuing turmoil of self-acceptance and coming to terms with ones identity is still every bit as relevant. Not every moment of Liza and Annie’s story will chime with every gay or ‘confused’ (I hate that term) teenager, but through it they will be able to draw parallels to their own lives.
Annie on My Mind is the story of two seventeen-year-old girls whose chance meeting at a museum and their blossoming friendship slowly turns to first love, self-discovery and the struggle to stand up and be proud of who and what they are. When Eliza (Liza) Winthrop visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art in search of inspiration for her architecture project she meets Annie Kenyon and they form a instant connection, despite coming from vastly different backgrounds. Liza is a privately educated pupil at priggish Foster Academy in Brooklyn Heights and as a studious and sensible girl she has been elected student council president. Together with her parents and younger brother, Chad, she has never given too much thought to anything other than aiming to study at MIT, let alone love. Annie Kenyon, meanwhile, lives in a rather more down-at-heel neighbourhoods and as a daughter of an Italian born cab-driver she attends a significantly rougher public school, where she feels very different to her classmates. At Liza’s school, Foster Academy, the emphasis is on upholding morals and adhering to strict rules, most closely scrutinised by two religious zealots in headmistress, Mrs Poindexter, and her acolyte of an admin assistant, Ms Baxter. Launching a fund-raising drive to save the school, Liza’s breach of a bizarre (nonsensical) reporting rule over an ill-advised ear-piercing session carried out by another student, Sally Jarrell, gets her suspended and it is her recounting of this debacle that sets the tone for much of the novel. However, not all the teachers at Foster Academy are quite as small-minded and in art teacher, Ms Stevenson, and English teacher, Ms Widmer, whose discreet cohabitation arrangement may appear very innocent within the confines of the school kindred spirits do exist. The suspension and the burgeoning friendship of Liza and Annie slowly turns to something more and ‘cat-sitting’ for the aforementioned teachers turns out to be a euphemism for their first physical encounters! Despite Liza having to go before the draconian disciplinary panel and her unwillingness to admit to the full extent of her liaison to her parents, an enforced summer separation and first term as freshman allows reflection for both girls and the promise of a Christmas reunion hints at both being determined to give it a shot!
Readers hoping for a ‘cheap thrill’ will be sorely disappointed by the contents of Annie on My Mind for there is very little detail about the physical side of the relationship. It takes Liza and Annie a lengthy period of flirting and clumsy fooling around before they manage to hold hands, let alone kiss. Even then the emphasis isn’t on showing the physical manifestations of their love, but in just spending time together, not touching, but simply being close to someone once a connection has been made. The hesitation surrounding the initial stages of the romance takes the form of tomfoolery and play acting and whilst I found this hard to identify with, it was all part of testing the water and gauging an individuals response to ones intimations and overtures. The pantomime charade is a little overly long and frankly embarrassingly twee and felt somewhat stilted, however, I felt part of this clunkiness was beneficial in reflecting how awkward it can feel for things to begin to progress and emotions outside of ones comfort zone to begin to emerge. Once the girls come to accept the progression of the relationship to a more physical love, the hesitation and hurdles are well documented and for many people today this is still a significant obstacle. Annie on My Mind is a beautiful tale of two girls, both wiser than their years, slowly beginning to come to terms with their emotions.
Although it is often said that this is a “lesbian love story with a happy ending” and there is the promise of hope and the relationship flourishing, on the evidence of the attitudes of the era, I think that the optimism should be a little more reserved. After all, with Liza being called before the trustees’ council and the bible bashing crones that pass for the staff of Foster Academy spouting an about immorality and Sodom and Gomorrah, I fear this may be wishful thinking. Some youngsters today might have difficulty relating to the two seventeen-year-olds as the passing generation have given way to a more streetwise, open-minded and experienced mindset. I can appreciate that some may find Liza and Annie a little dull, in terms of dating rites but I would urge them to stick with this novel, if only to appreciate the albeit slow progress we have made in accepting homosexuality. I had questions and areas that I felt Nancy Garden neglected to address, most notably the religious beliefs of Liza and Annie, particularly given how devout Foster Academy seemed to be. For example, did the Winthrop family have strict religious beliefs, or was it just Foster Academy that was so conformist? Annie on My Mind is narrated from Liza’s point of view and inevitably it feels that she is more clearly drawn than Annie, despite Annie having largely come to terms with her sexuality, she remains a vaguer and unknown quantity.
A wonderful read, not without its faults or particularly great literature, Nancy Garden’s portrayal of first love still has relevance, even for today's more confident and worldly wise teenagers. Honest, sentimental, frequently corny from the overtures of their first meeting, their muddled feelings and their course to becoming lovers, this is a charming and poignant novel that I am throughly glad to have read. The school setting works well and plays an important role through its oppressive and overtly hostile atmosphere when Liza’s is called a lesbian and when her lab partner asks her about the mechanics of lesbian sex. As heavy handed and gauche as this book often feels whilst reading, there is something fitting about the whole ungainliness of the story and it is undoubtedly still true that the course of gay love is still not as recognised or accepted as it deserves to be.
Review written by Rachel Hall (@hallrachel)