Wednesday, September 7

Pearl

by Jo Knowles   
Henry Holt  2011  


When fifteen year old Pearl (aka Bean) loses her grandfather, the one person she felt knew and loved her best, a whole world of secrets open up that forces her to question everything she's ever believed about her world.
  

Pearl, who goes by the nickname Bean, and her best friend Henry are self-separated outcasts. Henry's mom Sally spends her days watching soap operas on TV, refuses to leave the house, and has spent the last fifteen years expecting her husband to come home while poor Henry is self-conscious of his profuse sweating. Bean lives with her grandfather Gus who seems to love her more than his own daughter Lexie, Bean's mother, who likewise cannot stand Gus. The rift between Gus and Lexie is strong and loud and it leaves Bean siding with her grandfather simply because her mother shows no interest in her. In their private misery Henry and Bean find comfort in each others company.  

When Gus dies Bean is crushed and then angered at the way Lexie and her mother's friend Claire seem to be celebrating the fact. Bean manages to convince Sally to leave her house for the first time by inviting her to Gus's funeral which allows Lexie and Claire to help Sally address the reality of her situation, that her husband isn't coming home. While Bean and Henry attempt to understand their world as it turns upside down they discover first that Bean was conceived out of spite against Gus, and that the cause of that spite was Gus's intolerance over Lexie's sexual orientation. 

Further complications arise when Henry and Bean's friendship veers toward the rocks of becoming something more serious while Bean begins piecing together clues about her biological father that happen to line up with Henry's father's disappearance. Fortunately for all involved that particular story thread doesn't happen to tie together and the story ends with all five characters out of the shadows of their long-kept secrets, stronger and supportive of one another.  

*

There's something very Southern about the feel of this story, something rural, or at the least very country about it that I can't quite put my finger on. It could be the closeness of the characters, the focus on food for comfort, or my own stilted perspective that comes from stories that are more rooted in character than in place. Or perhaps it comes from a deeper desire on my part to want to assign the story's central theme of intolerance to a time long past, something sad and bucolic like a country song or an old movie in sepia tones. 

There also something interesting going on with the framing of the story, between Gus's last words and Bean's reflection on them at the end. Having seen Gus yell at Lexie and accuse her of dressing "loose" and essentially bringing on the rape that caused Lexie (the rape being a fabrication the teenage Lexie uses to further justify her actions) we know that Gus has given up on his own daughter and instead begun to use Bean as a substitute for the daughter he wished he had. His last words to Bean as she's leaving for the day are simply "Be good." And while there was never and indication that she had or would behave otherwise, it becomes the defining statement against Lexie, the unspoken suffix to his admonition being "...unlike your mother."

Of course, there's nothing actually bad about Lexie other than the fact that she had an unsupportive parent and thus never really learned how to raise Bean, and the reader begins to wonder if Bean was little more than an emotional pawn between Gus and Lexie's battles. But in the end, after the dust settles and all truths have been explored and exhausted, Bean reflects back on Gus's last words. She thinks Don't worry, Gus, I'll be fine.  I don't want to over-read this, but since we have learned that Bean and Henry have genuine affection for each other, and there's is a "traditional" heterosexual attraction, I can't help but wonder if Bean's silent assurance to Gus is that he needn't worry that she'll turn out "bad" like her mother. After fifteen years of tension it will take years to sort out the damage and here, standing in the fresh echoes of her dead grandfather's voice, it isn't one hundred percent clear that Bean fully accepts her mother's choice of partner or even lifestyle. Gus clearly was wrong, and Bean comes to understand that, but she cannot shake the thought that had he been more accepting she wouldn't have been conceived at all. 

Sadly, there are probably many teens out there who will benefit from Pearl story. It's a safe window into the world where even adult children struggle with their parents and poor decision-making has long and lasting effects, especially when they involve sex and behavior based on anger and spite.
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