If you’re a reader, you can run, and you can hide, but you can’t escape the coming-of-age story. It’s everywhere, a part of every era, a constant of literature as immovable as Hemingway himself. The only new ground is generational: the story varies depending upon the age of the person telling it. For Millennials, the variation arrives (at last) in the storyteller. Women, queer people, and people of color are telling their stories at last, which means that the coming-of-age genre has some new life in it for the first time in decades.
The Blurry Years, a debut novel by Eleanor Kriseman, is the kind of coming-of-age tale that we need, and the kind that likely would not have appeared on bookshelves until recently. Callie, the endearing narrator, matures from age six to age eighteen across the book, but even when she’s old enough to develop good boundaries, she can’t. She drinks with her mother’s consent and encouragement before she is in high school, has sex with boys within a few minutes of meeting them, and steals and parties her way through her adolescence. It’s a hair-raising novel, which includes types of sexual encounters rarely, if ever, recounted in fiction; shocking disregard for risk and consequence on the part of the narrator; and a well of sorrow and loneliness under Callie’s behavior that, when it becomes evident, overwhelms both Callie and the reader. “I didn’t know what to do with myself when I was alone, really,” Callie says at one point. “I hated being alone. All I could think about were bad things.”
It’s also a deceptively simple novel. No fancy narrative tricks, no framing devices, no division of the action into distinct cinematic acts—just Callie’s story, as she lives it, in lean and attractive prose. However, there is connective tissue in more than just Callie’s voice: stars appear as a motif several times, as does a Carly Simon song. And desire, in its many forms. The book stirred long-lost memories of my tween years, when I had desperate desires related to boys, but I didn’t exactly know what their fulfillment would look like.
I wanted him to touch me and I wanted to touch all the bodies I’d ever known, wanted to be back in bed when my mom came in early in the morning to spoon me, to be nestled in between my old babysitter and her boyfriend on the couch, to be back in the shower with Shauna in our bathing suits, bumping into each other as we both tried to stand underneath the stream of hot water to rinse the chlorine out of our hair. To be back in Eugene, looking out at the Willamette River with Starr’s hand on mine. I was so, so lonely.
It isn’t clear whether Callie’s desire for touch and connection, in this passage and throughout the book, is about being underloved by her dissolute mother, or about the unclear longing for bodies and connection that tween girls feel but rarely record. Either way, Callie’s desires, raw and discomfiting, refuse to be ignored.
A primary character of The Blurry Years is its setting: Florida. Between Lauren Groff’s Florida, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, and the work of Karen Russell, this state, portrayed by women, forms a microtrend in literary fiction. Kriseman distinguishes herself by making Florida rather despicable and exploitative, blinding its residents with thick heat and an empty sun, forcing them to scrabble for pleasure on a beach filled with trash. Callie and her mother move around within the state often, from one dingy apartment to another. They rely partially on whatever man will support them. Men prove disposable, moving in and out of the book as predators and minor characters, but a few of them show good character. Marcus, a young man thrown together with Callie due to one of her mother’s many affairs, is the most continuously positive influence in her life. He takes her in after her mother commits a final unforgivable act, gently spurns her advances on him, and teaches her what unconditional love looks like.
The book’s conclusion is difficult to diagnose. Callie leaves Florida (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s obvious from the start that she can’t stay there) and finds love with a figure whose role is somewhere between a mother and a big sister. It seems like this is another choice based on Callie’s permeable boundaries—a near-incestuous happy ending. We’ve been rooting for Callie to gain independence from her bad impulses and her poisonous mother, and although she does seem to be on a healthier trajectory once she leaves Florida, for her to end up this way doesn’t really fulfill those hopes. But perhaps I’m not giving enough credit to the role of fate in the book, or to Callie’s ability to internalize the lessons forced on her much too young.
I felt like I might need a lifetime to learn the true difference between a debt and a favor, and the difference between the kinds of people who could turn the same action into one or the other.
Callie is a heroine to remember, a perfect personification of the era of adolescence when decisions were easily made and long regretted. She doesn’t reflect much on her behavior, or offer evidence that she understands why she acts so self-destructively. This isn’t a negative quality; it’s another piece of the book’s authenticity. These are the blurry years, after all.
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Publication date: July 10, 2018
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio