Adolescence is an ambiguous stage of life. Less free and innocent than childhood, less settled and secure than adulthood, it hangs between in a kind of limbo. "Cherry," Mary Karr's second memoir, not only captures this neither-here-nor-there phase perfectly, it mirrors it. The book itself seems to serve as a transition piece between "The Liars' Club," her wonderfully funny and searing account of early childhood, and some future, as yet unwritten, work.
"Cherry" picks up where "The Liars' Club" left off when Karr is 11. We meet the same scrappy, uninhibited little girl from the previous book. She asks Violet Durkey point-blank why she was not invited to her sleepover party. Violet explains she was only allowed to have five girls - and then lists six. Enviously watching a pack of shirtless boys ride their bikes on a hot afternoon, she peels off her own shirt and rides through the streets, shocking the neighbors.
But Karr also gives early indications that she has entered a new, less childlike phase. Right away, she homes in on a major aspect of life in Leechfield: its stultifying boredom. She reads "To Kill a Mockingbird" three times in one week, each time turning the last page only to feel the "day's heaviness even more keenly."
Part of Karr's boredom comes from loneliness - the house is often empty, with her father working at the refinery, her mother painting in her studio or studying at college (or, on more than one occasion, simply gone for days), and her sister off on dates. "The house held me in a kind of misty nether-time," Karr writes. "I waited a lot, though for what I don't know."
Boredom, of course, is one stereotypical feature of adolescence; another is self-consciousness. Bit by bit, Karr documents this subtle reorientation of her thought as well: Spotting a pimple on her forehead, she quickly thinks back to a moment when John Cleary (her first crush) would have seen it, and writes, "I felt another trapdoor in my quivery sense of self fling open."
Significantly, as this shift into self-consciousness becomes full-blown, about halfway through the memoir, Karr's narrative suddenly switches from the first person to the second person. In this way, she manages to convey a sense of distance and ironic detachment, more common teenage traits. She also puts readers in the position of being forced to relive their own adolescence: "Your thinking is muddy. You feel some key moment went past that you're now powerless to recover."
It's a clever technique, and especially well suited to the last section of the book, "High," which chronicles Karr's high school drug use and sexual initiation. The narrative in this second half conveys more sensations than events, and ultimately, these are less satisfying chapters. In part, this is because Karr's memories are hazier. Much of what makes the first part (and "The Liars' Club") so successful is the sharpness - the undeniable truth - of her account. The last few chapters seem less substantial because the teenage Karr spent so much time stoned that there isn't much to tell.
Although Karr has said she has no immediate plans for a third installment, it is impossible not to hope another is on the horizon. The book's prologue describes her departure from home at age 18, heading out for California, but the story never quite comes back full circle, leaving the reader hanging. And Karr makes scattered references to terrible tragedies in the future - tragedies greater than those in this book.
That said, it's a tribute to Karr's power as a storyteller that this account, even with past and future installments hanging over it, is a tremendously enjoyable read on its own. Karr has a warm and inventive writing style, and her memoir is sprinkled throughout with penetrating insights. She's the kind of author you wish you knew in person, and she leaves readers in eager anticipation of her move to adulthood.
Liz Marlantes is on the Monitor staff.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society