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BOOK REVIEW

'Touch: A Novel' by Francine Prose

Maturity and physical changes intrude on a young girl's friendship with her three male best friends.

July 26, 2009|Susan Carpenter

Breasts can be so problematic, especially if you're a teenage girl. First, there's the worry you won't grow any. Then there are the problems once you do. That's the situation in which 14-year-old Maisie Willard finds herself in "Touch," the latest young adult novel by National Book Award finalist Francine Prose.

Maisie is flat-chested when she leaves to spend a year in another city with her mom, but she blossoms in the time she is away from the three best friends she's known since preschool -- all of them boys. Hugging is suddenly out of the question for the soon-to-be high-school freshmen. So are conversations about their morphing bodies and rising interest levels in matters involving the opposite sex.

But the change in Maisie's physique is undeniable, and so is her friends' interest in touching her. While Maisie lets one of them brush his hand against her chest during bus rides to school -- incidents she dismisses as accidental -- it isn't long before the other two demand to be given the same opportunity.

When a fellow bus rider reports the incident to the school principal, and the school principal calls Maisie's stepmom, the subject of whether Maisie was touched and whether she allowed it blows up into a lawsuit and boils down to a miserable daily existence at school, as Maisie herself tries to figure out what really happened.

Did she let them touch her? And did she ask them to pay her money? Or did she say no, only allowing the boys to fondle her because her hands were pinned by one of the perpetrators? In true victim fashion, she honestly can't recall, and she doesn't know whom to trust to help her figure it out. She despises her stepmom and is angry at her real mom for breaking up her parents' marriage. Her dad is uncomfortable with the situation, and her three best friends have now become the enemy.

Then there are Maisie's therapist, a woman she also doesn't trust because she's her stepmom's friend, and her own traumatized thoughts, which get more convoluted by the day as she sinks into her new identity as "the Magic Ice Cube Girl" at school. "Everyone freezes when they see me," she says.

As prevalent as they are in American culture, breasts are a delicate subject in young adult literature. As much as they're objects of fascination, admiration, curiosity and pride, they're also the cause of despair, confusion, embarrassment and, in the case of "Touch," unwanted attention and inappropriate behavior. Prose takes all these conflicting and oftentimes concurrent scenarios and wraps them in a fascinating, eloquent tale of truth and consequences -- of what happens when one's body becomes a desired if unwittingly sexual object, when the measurements of a female form bring childhood to an emotionally painful end. Prose's own touch is deft and sensitive, making "Touch" a wonderful, and powerful, read.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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