The power of a girl — so large, so threatening that civilizations build their religions and bureaucracies, their rules and regulations, their apples and snakes and burkas around it. Creating a girl on paper, a mere character, could it be anything like raising one? Having once been one?
Dylan Landis has a gift for creating characters. Her first book of fiction, Normal People Don't Live Like This, revolves around Leah Levinson, a teenage girl in 1970s Manhattan, and it is in her character details that the writing comes to life. Of Helen, Leah's anorexic mother, she writes, "Toast cooled before her." Of Angeline Yost, the school slut: "The Gospel of Angeline Yost is graven into desks with house keys and the blood of Bics; it is written in the glances of girls — low arcs of knowing that span the hallways and ping off the metal lockers."
These are cocktails for Landis, these are not even protagonists. Leah is the girl things happen to. She's the one worth worrying about. She's the one with the heart that "sprouted like a seed" when it looked as if another girl, Rainey, might actually be her friend; she's the one who knows "that a person's molecules can fly apart like an exploding galaxy and disappear."
Any book that begins with 13-year-old girls — whether Rainey, slinging her unquenchable sexuality and fury, or Leah, obsessive compulsive child of an obsessive compulsive mother — is going to feel dangerous. Forget about smoking guns. Thirteen-year-old girls are bound to go off.
Leah could destroy herself in so many different ways. You hold your breath. What'll it be? Miscarriage or abortion? Addiction? Prison? Prostitution? The adults are no help. Her father dies, her mother keeps a very clean house. How can she run this gamut — mean girls, exams, emotions, the thrill of having secrets and breaking rules?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, love can save you. But is he good enough for her? Will she be crushed? As for Landis, watch her very carefully. Once you can create characters like Leah (or Angeline, Rainey and Helen), there's no stopping you.