What Girls Want

A series of vampire novels illuminates the complexities of female adolescent desire.
Adam S. Doyle

Children’s books about divorce—which are unanimously dedicated to bucking up those unfortunate little nippers whose families have gone belly-up—ask a lot of their authors. Their very premise, however laudable, so defies the nature of modern children’s literature (which, since the Victorian age, has centered on a sentimental portrayal of the happy, intact family) that the enterprise seems doomed from the title. Since the 1950s, children have delighted in the Little Bear books (Mother Bear: “I never did forget your birthday, and I never will”)—but who wants to find a copy of Cornelia Maude Spelman’s Mama and Daddy Bear’s Divorce wedged onto the shelf? Still, the volumes fill a need: helping children understand that life on the other side of the custody hearing can still be happy and hopeful, that a broken family is not a ruined one.

But pick up a novel written for adolescents in which the main character is a child of divorce, and you’re in very different waters. Divorce in a young-adult novel means what being orphaned meant in a fairy tale: vulnerability, danger, unwanted independence. It also means that the protagonists must confront the sexuality of their parents at the moment they least want to think about such realities. It introduces into a household the adult passions and jealousies that have long gone to ground in most middle-aged parents, a state of affairs that is particularly difficult for girls, who have a more complicated attitude toward their own emerging sexuality than do boys, and who are far more rooted in the domestic routines and traditions of their families, which constitute the vital link between the sweet cocooning of childhood and their impending departure from it.

Also see:



Video: "Twilight: A Review"

MCaitlin Flanagan brings a camcorder and a savvy 14-year-old girl to a premiere of the new vampire movie.

The only thing as difficult for a girl as a divorce—if we are to judge from stories aimed at the teen market—is a move. Relocating is what led to the drug addiction, prostitution, and death that freaked out a generation of readers in Go Ask Alice, and to the teenybopper dipsomania of Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. In the most perfectly constructed young-adult novel of the past few decades, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume heightened the anxiety in her tale of a girl awaiting her first period by beginning the story with Margaret’s move to the suburbs. The drama and anguish with which girls confront such disruptions to their domestic lives are typical both of the narcissism that can make living with a teenage girl one of the most unpleasant experiences God metes out to the unsuspecting, and of the ways that, for women, puberty is the most psychologically complex and emotionally alive experience of their lives. Why wouldn’t a girl buck against leaving her hometown? Never again will she have such intense friendships, such a burning need to be in constant contact with the circle of girls (the best friend, the second-best friend, the whole court as carefully considered and clearly delineated as a bridal party) who sustain her through their shared experience of the epic event of female adolescence.

TWILIGHT IS THE FIRST in a series of four books that are contenders for the most popular teen-girl novels of all time. (The movie based on the first book was released in November.) From the opening passage of the first volume, the harbingers of trouble loom: 17-year-old Bella Swan is en route to the Phoenix airport, where she will be whisked away from her beloved, sunny hometown and relocated to the much-hated Forks, Washington, a nearly aquatic hamlet of deep fogs and constant rains. The reason for the move is that Mom (a self-absorbed, childlike character) has taken up with a minor-league baseball player, and traveling with him has become more appealing than staying home with her only child. Bella will now be raised by her father, an agreeable-enough cipher, who seems mildly pleased to have his daughter come to live with him, but who evinces no especial interest in getting to know her; they begin a cohabitation as politely distant and mutually beneficial as a particularly successful roommate matchup off Craigslist. Bella’s first day at her new school is a misery: the weather is worse than she could ever have imagined, and the one silvery lining to the disaster is the mystery and intrigue presented by a small group of students—adopted and foster children of the same household—who eat lunch together, speak to no one else, are mesmerizingly attractive, and (as we come rather quickly to discover) are vampires. Bella falls in love with one of them, and the novel—as well as the three that follow it—concerns the dangers and dramatic consequences of that forbidden love.

I hate Y.A. novels; they bore me. That’s a disappointing fact of my reading life, because never have I had such an intense relationship with books as when I was a young girl. I raged inside them and lived a double emotional life (half real girl, half inhabitant of a distant world). To Sir, With Love and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Forever and Rebecca, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones and Mrs. Mike, Gone With the Wind and Rich Man, Poor Man, and even Valley of the Dolls (an astonishing number of whose 8 million readers turned out to be teenagers) and Peyton Place, as well as any movie-star biography I could get my hands on (Judy Garland, Greta Garbo—in those days, you had to have been long dead or seriously faded to be worthy of such a biography) and a slew of far less famous books written exclusively for the teen-girl market and published in paperback, never to be heard of again—all of these books consumed me in a way that no other works of art or mass culture ever have. I chose books neither because of, nor in spite of, their artistic merit, only for their ability to pull me through the looking glass.

When I read in “The Dead” that Lily was “literally run off her feet,” I did not care about, or even notice, the misuse of the word literally, nor did it occur to me to observe that this subtle deployment of a Dublin colloquialism hinted at the story’s point of view. What I cared about, intensely, was what it would feel like to be sent running up and down the stairs of a house as a teenage maid, with holiday gaieties in full force, and everyone being mean to me, instead of pampering and babying me the way my parents did on Christmas Eve. I can remember lying on my bed in a Dublin row house at 15, so immersed in Margaret Mitchell that I faked three days of illness to keep reading, and I remember lying in my own bed in Berkeley—the cat dozing at my feet, the bay wind brushing the tree branches against my dormer windows—and roaring through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn completely at home in turn-of-the-century Williamsburg, a place I had never even heard of before picking up the book but which I could navigate, in the landscape of my imagination, as easily as I could the shady streets and secret hillside staircases that connected my house to the record shop and ice-cream parlor down on Euclid Avenue.

The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In