I just finished reading Uses for Boys, by Erica Lorraine Scheidt. This book has gotten three starred reviews (Kirkus, PW, Booklist), and a bunch of very mixed reviews on Goodreads. And I get why. I didn’t really want to read it myself. It’s one of those books that make us uncomfortable. It’s unhappy. It’s disturbing. It’s depressing. It’s sordid. Yet, somehow it works.
Anna lives with her single mother. Anna remembers when she was young, and was everything to her mother. Anna loves hearing the story about how her mother was all alone and just wanted a little girl, and then there was Anna. But as Anna gets older, her mother starts going out with men, even marrying some of them, but they all go away eventually. “‘Men leave,” she says. ‘Just like my father,’ she says. ‘Just like yours.'” But Anna wants a family, and she tries to make a family: with her stuffed animals, with her new stepbrothers, with her friend at school. But somehow it is never the family she wants. By the time she is thirteen, she is finding her family with boys. But somehow, it never works out. By the time she is sixteen, she has left school and moved in with Josh, but that doesn’t last long, either. By the time she meets Sam, who has two parents, two siblings, and a real family life, Anna is already pretty damaged, but she is still longing for that family.
Pretty much everyone in this book fails Anna in some way or another. Her mother, certainly. The parade of stepfathers. Her supposed friends at school. Her good friend Toy. Her teachers. Society. The nurse at the abortion clinic, who is probably the most sympathetic character in the whole book. And definitely the boys.
But there is at least some hope at the end of the book. Anna’s relationship with Sam holds out the possibility for some real future for Anna–although not, really, because of Sam, but because of his family, especially his mother.
I think one of the most interesting things about the book is Anna’s own narrative of her life. It begins with the stories her mother tells her, and the stories she tells her stuffed animals. But even as she grows older and boys start to fill the gaping emptiness she feels in her life, she sees herself as if from the outside. When she is with a boy, she is constantly narrating the scene, imagining how she will tell the story to Toy, or even to her mother. She wants it all to fit into an image she has of who she is and what love is, and what family means.
This is definitely not a book for everyone, but I think it is a book worth talking about.
Oh, and just one more thing: that cover. I have no idea why this boy and girl are draped in fairy lights. It kind of implies to me that this is a lovely, romantic story, which is most certainly isn’t. It’s about the most incongruous cover I’ve seen in a while.