Thursday, 10 March 2016

Review: Forever

Forever
Judy Blume
Macmillan (2015 reprint)

A photograph of the cover of Judy Blume's Forever.
The 2015 reprint of Judy Blume's Forever.
My son pulled Forever off a shelf in a bookstore. It was next to Enid Blyton in the young readers’ section.

He thought I’d like it because it had a cherry on the front, and I like cherries. He’s a young, innocent child. Thoughtful – but innocent.


Judy Blume’s Forever was a groundbreaking text for teenagers when it was released in the 1970s, and I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read it. Sure, I knew what it was about – who hadn’t heard about the book with teenagers having sex, and lots of it? But the libraries at my Catholic school or the small country towns I lived in didn’t stock it. And sex was not discussed at home – my chances of getting Forever from a bookstore were zilch. I forgot about it for a decade or so, until it kept coming up as an example of positive sexual relationship – or a relationship in which the girl was not punished for having sex by falling pregnant or contracting an STD – in my Masters studies. Even then, it was constantly checked out through the library.

When my son handed Forever to me my first thought was it’d been shelved in the wrong section, and my second thought was, “Bugger it. I’m a grown woman. I’m buying it.” And maybe times had changed – maybe it wasn’t shelved in the wrong section by today’s standards.

I read the first line:
Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys.

So. Not a book for younger readers.

This review will contain spoilers because the plot’s contained in the cover blurb. Katherine meets Michael, Katherine meets Michael’s penis, Ralph. The three of them participate in a variety of sexual acts. They are separated over summer – Katherine and Michael, not Michael and Ralph. Katherine meets someone else. Forever is an ironic title.

A foreword on the first page of the 2015 reprint demonstrates why Forever is a book of its time. Blume writes that sexual responsibility in the mid-seventies meant preventing unwanted pregnancy, whereas it now includes preventing STDs. In the book, Katherine is advised to go on the pill; nowadays she’d be advised to use a condom as well, Blume writes. “If you are going to be sexually active,” she says, “you MUST take responsibility for your own actions and your own life.”

This is a salient message, and one demonstrated by Kath in the book. I was torn when reading Forever: part of me wished I’d read this as a na├»ve, late-blooming, inexperienced teenager. Parent me was thinking about the conversation I’d be having with my child when he eventually read this.

Forever was written post-sexual revolution when sex before marriage remained largely taboo. Kath is a teenager on the cusp of a new age. Her grandmother sends her information and encourages her to take control of her own contraception. Katherine asks her mother if she was a virgin when she married, and her mother says she was until she was engaged but Katherine’s father wasn’t, because there was a double standard and “boys were supposed to get plenty of experience before marriage” (which raises another double standard of who were they getting that experience with?).

Kath is a virgin. Michael isn’t. The main thrust of the narrative is the development of their sexual relationship alongside their romantic attachment, and Kath’s parents’ concerns that she’ll become so involved with Michael that she’ll end up tied to him.

The book has several groundbreaking positives: Kath’s parents would rather she bring Michael home (although she’s initially reluctant to do anything in the house); Kath and Michael communicate with one another about how they’re feeling; Michael does pressure Kath, but respects her decision to say no; they use condoms – or sheaths; and the sexual acts are not ‘fade off into the distance’ writing. Most importantly, Kath develops her sexual maturity without any negative consequences, such as a pregnancy or STD – although other characters portray these outcomes – and the relationship runs its course without her feeling used or tarnished, or labelled as easy. She does not have to stay with Michael just because they’ve slept together.

The sexual acts are described in a matter-of-fact way – how it feels physically and what’s happening biologically – which stops the story becoming teenage eroticism.

However, for me there’s one huge issue, which is summed up by the first line: “Sybil… has been laid by at least six different guys.” Not Sybil has slept with, Sybil has had sex with, Sybil was a willing and active instigator. Sybil is a passive participant, although she is later described as liking sex and not planning to stop. This opening line, from Kath’s POV, says a lot about where the character’s thoughts on sex begin, but it’s a subtext that carries through much of the book.

Most of the descriptions are about what Ralph’s doing, how Ralph’s reacting, and how Ralph feels to Kath. When she orgasms, there’s little to no description of how her own body responds. Even though Michael states he wants to make it good for her and that it’s not just about him, the bulk of the description is not focused on Kath. In terms of a how-to manual, it prepares girls for what to expect from the guy, but not necessarily how she could feel or react.

Michael’s the instigator, Kath’s the one who slows things down. Michael remains the stereotypical horny guy and the pressure remains on Kath to stop them getting “carried away”. When Kath does initiate – by kissing her way down Michael’s body – Michael notes she’s “aggressive.”

I hadn’t thought about that until he said it. I was surprised myself. ‘Do you mind?’
‘I like it.’

Just when Kath reaches the point where she’s comfortable with her own sexuality, the reader’s reminded this is “aggressive” behaviour!

As I said, I’m in two minds about this book. As a teenager, it would’ve demystified the topic and, quite frankly, been instructive and made the whole sex thing less intimidating, but as an older reader I can see the mixed messages it could send contemporary teenage girls. Kath is a character struggling with traditional ideas in a what was then modern world, and she’s bridging the gap between conservatism and the reality that teenagers were sexually active.

While the health, safety, consent and emotional messages will always remain important and relevant, as will Kath’s right to go at her own pace, the undercurrent of Kath holding all responsibility in how fast their sexual relationship progresses and having to effectively ‘control’ Michael’s urges is not as empowering now as it was forty years ago. This is reinforced by minor characters, including Erica, who feels it's her fault and her responsibility that Artie doesn't want to be with her physically.

Forever definitely needs to be read in its historical context.


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