Nothing in Common by Barbara Bottner (Harper & Row, 179 pages, $12.50).
"Nothing in Common," Barbara Bottner's first novel for young adults, is rich in the stuff of teen-age dreams and despair: lonesomeness, the inadequacies of parents, explosive lust, first love, rebellion and thwarted ambition. But this is not a glib, predictable book, mostly because its two youthful heroines exhibit wisdom beyond their years and, thanks to Barbara Bottner's loose rein, triumphant individuality.
Melissa and Sara are both 16--one is rich, the other poor. They are devoted to Mrs. Gregori, who is Melissa's maid and trusted confidante as well as Sara's mother. Sara always resented her mother's kindness toward Melissa, and when Mrs. Gregori suddenly dies a servant's ignominious death, Sara's sense of disparity between the haves and have-nots intensifies. Stonily repressing her grief, she schemes to have Melissa's mother pay her tuition to art school.
Meanwhile, spurned by her vapid, self-indulgent mother, Melissa spends hours composing poems and letters to the late Mrs. Gregori. Despite their rivalry and spiraling jealousies, Melissa and Sara have much in common, and the intention of Bottner's novel is to draw them finally into a hard-won empathy.
'It's Scary to Change'
Melissa and Sara are intelligent, complex characters--equally engaging. Their viewpoints alternate from chapter to chapter, and neither girl's story is exalted at the expense of the other's. One ongoing, touching irony is that the two are clearly sisters in spirit but don't learn this for a long and brutal time. Near the end of the book, when Sara briefly embraces Melissa, she notes: "Melissa wasn't a rich girl anymore. I felt her body. She had small bones and narrow shoulders. She was shaking. It was scary to touch her, it was scary to change my mind." Such moments of narrative sensitivity and confession abound throughout the book.
Being scared of change is a major concern for Melissa and Sara. They equate change with maturation and success but also with risk and failure. Mrs. Gregori, for example, was afraid to try being anything but a maid. Most of the adults they know lack the courage to pursue illusory prospects. But Melissa and Sara are plucky, resourceful girls; best of all, they're blessed with stellar imaginations. This novel seems very much about the often ignored potential for inventing one's own happiness.
Barbara Bottner's prose is lively and stylish. Her teen-agers tend to subscribe to a youthfully lyrical angst that never bogs down in self-pity. It's honesty, not spectacle, that motivates Sara to plumb the nature of her grief long after her mother's death: "Mourning. It vacuums up everything. Your backbone goes, your will, your sense of smell, your ability to move, your rhythm, your desire for chocolate, for comfort, nice weather, new shoes, good grades, it all goes."
At times Melissa and Sara are so savvy and articulate that they seem capable of giving their younger readers an inferiority complex. However, Bottner humanizes them with enough self-doubt and anguish to gratify any reader who expects books to behave like mirrors. I found Melissa and Sara's eccentricities inspirational. Nobody chants "Awesome!" in this book. And the sexy boy is an intellectual who wears glasses!
I do think Bottner goes overboard with her depiction of Melissa's despicable mother, Gigi, who is nothing more than a preening Barbie doll in the throes of mid-life crisis. She is the single unredeemably flat character in the novel and more boring than the author probably intended. Her exaggerated awfulness seems contrived to make Melissa's misery equal Sara's.
In spite of Gigi, "Nothing in Common" is an uncommonly deft portrayal of loss and gain, a death that catalyzes important alterations and adjustments in the lives of two special young women.