Room to Breathe by Joann Bren Guernsey (Houghton Mifflin: $12.95 hardcover)
Though its dust-jacket cover art won't help, this is a novel to dangle before romance readers to raise their sights, and deepen their reading experience. Lacking moonlight and roses, the cover instead shows a girl trapped between her boyfriend and her father in a movie theater, illustrating the title, which might as well have been "No Room to Breathe."
Mandy Smetana feels claustrophobic in the overlapping possessiveness of her father, George, and her boyfriend, Peter. This is a sequel to "Five Summers," which chronicled Mandy's earlier adolescence. In "Room to Breathe," she's entering senior year with all the attendant confusions and an almost insupportable burden, grief.
Her mother has died during the summer, of breast cancer. Shattered and disoriented at the responsibilities of being a daughter's only parent, George struggles and makes the inevitable mistakes. When he prepares their scrappy meals, Mandy wonders if it's his way of saying, " 'You can do this much better, so next time you do it.' "
Silently, she responds. "I didn't need to take on another of Mom's jobs, another chance to fall short."
Some Maturing to Do
Peter, who's older than Mandy, hovers impatiently in the hope she'll mature in his direction, though he has some maturing to do himself. When George daydreams aloud about passing the family truck farm on to Peter and Mandy --as farmer and farmer's wife--her throat begins to close.
In a lesser novel, Mandy might have cut and run, to Minneapolis, the city down the road. But her friend, Rachel, wise beyond her years, points out that " 'parents have a way of controlling you even if you're not living with them anymore.' " And so, of course, does grief. Moreover, the novel is set in the late 1960s, when the vocabulary of youthful revolt seems, in hindsight, still baby talk.
There's a heavy hint of the autobiographical in this novel. Both author and heroine grew up on Minnesota farms. Anybody who knows that lugs of overripe and cracked tomatoes are called canners knows the territory. And well along in the book Mandy speaks the fatal words: ". . . I'm thinking about being a writer someday. . . ."
The '60s setting may have served the author better than readers who weren't there. But it's the decade when their own parents were their age, and the touches are light and evocative. Mandy stands behind a chair back to shield her father from the sight of a mini--almost a micro--skirt. Girls with Ali MacGraw eyebrows count themselves lucky. " 'I guess teaching is about my best bet,' " Peter says. " 'It sure beats the hell out of going to 'Nam.' " And in the background Paul McCartney croons "Yesterday."
Because something has to give, Mandy and Peter quarrel. It's the age when a girl can offend the boy she loves by calling him her best friend." 'So, what I've been is a friend, a buddy, to teach you so you can be ready when the right person comes along.' "
Peter's in college, and looking for an apartment and all it implies for their relationship. "It meant no more parking in dark lots, no more necking on our living-room couch, accompanied by Dad's snoring two rooms away. No more 'kid stuff.' " Mandy resists sex with him and recoils at the notion of condoms, which is a reminder of how little change has been rung in nearly 20 years.
'How Could He?'
In that sudden shift always so surprising to a high school senior, Mandy finds that Lynn, her former best friend, is ready and willing to claim Peter. "How could he? So soon. Where? In his car, where there were surely still traces of me--a lost earring, some Kleenex, a gum wrapper."
Mandy propels herself into the arms of Gary, a private school boy who's very polite, and black. He grows an Afro only to please his mother. Nothing about the situation pleases Mandy's father when Gary comes to take her to a dance. But here, where the novel might have deteriorated into a tract, the author maintains a gentle, controlled touch.
The conclusion won't outrage romance readers. Mandy moves from being in-love-with-love and all the pressures that state imposes to more mature responses to the men in her life.
But the message of this very readable book lies in its intelligent treatment of grief, as a loving father and daughter take their first steps beyond the tentative, together, on the last page.