You Against Me
by Jenny Downham
Published by Doubleday Canada
Hardcover, $19.95 CAN
This is pure genre fiction, on a number of accounts, but quite deft. I read once that we judge the formulaic not by its originality, but by its fulfillment of the formula. By that measure, this book is successful.
Here we have yet another version of Romeo and Juliet - two families at war over the most serious of crimes between them, the young blade of one family and the shy innocent of the other falling in love before she knows their families separate them. Romeo and Juliet, or should I say Mikey and Ellie, are perfect teen-novel characters. He is kind and caring, despite his desperate background, and stunningly attractive. He works in a pub kitchen, hoping to become a chef. It is one of the leit-motifs of the novel, his food preparations, alluding to his state of mind, his growing wisdom and even his dangerous and difficult situation. She is studious, and thoughtful, with a scar on her face from a dog bite in her youth (not sure what to make of that). Her motif is nature, the imagery expanding from birds to whales, as she gains in independence and rebelliousness.
The supporting families are still more sketchy and stereotypical: on the one hand Ellie's family, from the world of the highly entitled, are exam-taking, golf-playing and rich, with the father and son united in their bullishness and TV tastes, and a repressed and proper mother; on the other, there is the distressed and fatherless family of smokers living in a public estate, comprising not only the sweet Mikey himself, but the creative and light-hearted 8-year old sister, the feckless yet loving mother. Even the victim of the situation, Mikey's middle sister, is hardly drawn out. For much of the novel she is only a bundle of nervous rage refusing to leave the house. She is only a catalyst. Her story does not matter here.
In this case, the issue itself, the crime between the families, is also a hot-button genre for our times: did a slightly older, privileged boy (her brother) actually rape the 15-year old drunk, mini-skirted, poor girl (his sister), or was she asking or even hoping for sex with him?
The Romeo and Juliet theme continues as the two families spin towards implosion, and the two lovers realize that they cannot survive the situation. (Da-da-daaa–imagine the dramatic music) Or can they????
Although I read the praise for Downham's first book as "luminous" and "thrilling" and "mold-breaking", I found this book to be no more than competent and readable. It's not art, but I think girls will take it out of the library in droves.