Carissa Halston | A Girl Named Charlie Lester (Aforementioned Productions)

charlielester.jpg She’s a walking mass of contradictions but not a bad person: she just doesn’t realize that yet.

 

 

221 pages. Boston: Aforementioned Productions, 2008. $14.95 (paperback)

 

Charlie Lester is the antithesis to the super-girls who get featured in articles in the New York Times Magazine. You know the kind: five AP courses, three varsity sports, summer spent building schools in Guatemala (on a "volunteer vacation" paid for by doting parents), senior year spent visiting Ivy League campuses to determine which one, after all, would be just the perfect fit to continue their highly-programmed, adult-pleasing lives.

No, Charlie’s been pretty much left to her own resources in the growing up department. Orphaned, deserted by her older brother, left with an abusive aunt who kicks her out before she’s turned 18: with that kind of luck, it’s no wonder Charlie chooses to have a black sheep tattooed on her shoulder. She’s a walking mass of contradictions but not a bad person: she just doesn’t realize that yet.

A Girl Named Charlie Lester is a raw, up-close look at Charlie’s journey from sullen, disaffected and abused teenager to confident young adult. The story is told through a series of brief scenes with Charlie and her friends, written primarily in dialogue which reveals the author’s theatre background. Chronology is disrupted and signposts are not always provided, which can be disconcerting to the reader but purposeful on the author’s part: it allows the reader to form a picture of Charlie over time, rather the way you get to know a person in real life (unless the person is one of those hyper-programmed young people who’ve been working on their resume since grade school and have a pre-packaged life story ready to present to any and all acquaintances).

If you laid out Charlie Lester’s story in chronological order, it would resemble the conventional form of the hero’s journey. Thrust out of the ordinary world of her family (which itself is far from the sentimental picture portrayed by those who like to cite "family values"), Charlie suffers early defeats, meets mentors, conquers obstacles, achieves the boon (in this case, mature self-understanding) and returns to the ordinary world to take up her adult role (as a writer and owner of an indie bookstore). There are no fire-breathing dragons or golden fleece in this story, however: the trials Charlie must are based on being female, economically disenfranchised, and having no trustworthy family members to give her guidance.

Charlie’s journey will make middle-class parents blanch, but will be totally familiar to those of her generation. She is thrust into a world is characterized by casual cruelties and sexual exploitation, where naiveté and economic desperation can force denigrating choices on people for no better reason than their own vulnerability.

Her first boyfriend, Stephen, with whom she is honestly in love, tolerates her for some time then becomes abusive when he acquires a new girlfriend. Questioned about their relationship, he sums it up thus: "I didn’t say I wanted you to move in here. Extenuating circumstances brought you to live here, it’s not because we came to a mutual decision because we wanted to further our relationship. You basically didn’t have a place to go and I don’t have a problem with morning sex." (61)

That’s enough to break anyone’s young heart but Charlie is a survivor: she moves out and moves on, working a variety of low-paid jobs and beginning to acquire real friends and lovers who aren’t out to exploit her. She is able to make peace with her past and get on with living the life she wants, not the one she’ll get if she refuses to choose. As she tells her brother Lee, who reappears unexpectedly after four years in the Marines: "You can learn one of two ways from your parents: good example or bad example. Either way, there’s no excuse for growing up to be an asshole."(196)

A Girl Named Charlie Lester is Halston’s first novel. Her other works include the webcomic Babysitter Want Ads (http://bwa.aforementionedproductions.com/), the comic Sequentially Yours, and a book of five plays (performed off-Broadway) published as Cleavage. Sequentially Yours and Cleavage are available from the publisher’s website http://aforementionedproductions.com/bookstore.htm and A Girl Named Charlie Lester is available in bookstores (including St. Louis’s own Left Bank Books), from the publisher’s website, and from www.amazon.com. | Sarah Boslaugh

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