***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: A beautifully written, appropriately (which means "quite") explicit novel about a young woman's growing understanding of both her sexuality and her real value in the world.
The plot, so I won't forget. When Anna was little, her mother told her a story: her mother's life was empty, until she had her little girl, "and now I have everything." Anna demands this story, like a mantra. It's the cocoon that she wraps herself in to feel safe. But then, when Anna is still a young girl (I got the impression of about seven?) her mother is not satisfied with just Anna, and she begins bleaching her hair, having plastic surgeries, and endlessly looking for men to complete her. Anna suffers through a series of stepdads and stepbrothers (thank goodness none of them is abusive, although all of them are distant and disinterested and rarely earn names in Anna's first-person present-tense narration).
Anna's mother's series of (failed) marriages allow her to trade-up in terms of houses, but Anna's mother becomes distant--eventually not even showing up anymore when Anna is a young teen, because she's either traveling for work or sleeping with another man. Anna eats frozen pizza alone, and her only instruction is reminder notes to rinse the dishes before she loads them.
With that lack of guidance and love, Anna gleans the only thing she can from her mother's behavior: that a woman's value is her sexuality, and that she's nothing without a man. Anna begins narrating her own life story. "I had no mother. I had no father. And then I met you, and you changed everything." Her introduction to sex happens in a heartbreaking way, on the bus, when a boy named Desmond touches her breast one day and she allows it, not knowing how to draw boundaries (and interested by the way the touch makes her feel). While Desmond's friends are watching, he touches her breast the next day and makes her touch his erect penis through his pants, pushing her hand down again and again until he comes right into his jeans. Anna becomes the slut joke of the school, and her only friend, Nancy, abandons her. But who needs girlfriends when you can have boys?
A new boy named Joey arrives at school and she takes him home. Their sex life escalates quickly, and he says he loves her. He makes her big suburban home feel less empty, and this is what she thinks she needs. While on one of her (frequent) shopping outings at a thrift store, Anna meets Toy, a girl who is from a similarly dysfunctional home--another beautiful suburban home, this one with a swimming pool that's as empty as Toy's family life. Soon we figure out that Toy's single mother is an alcoholic. But Toy seems to have healthy relationships with boys who love her, vie for her, buy her thoughtful, sentimental gifts, and initiate sex gently and consensually.
Eventually Joey's family moves away (didn't Anna's mother say that all men leave?) and Anna is alone again. On a vacation with her family, she goes to a party, gets drunk, and is raped by her friend's stepbrother, Todd. She knows it's rape, but she can't bring herself to tell anyone. She drops out of school, takes a job in a coffee shop (she's maybe 16 at this point) and meets a boy named Josh, who is also young but living on his own, painting houses for an exhausting, meager living. She moves in with him, and they struggle to make ends meet, but soon she realizes that she has heard all of his stories and we know that she's starting to see that their life together is going nowhere. Unfortunately, they've had unprotected sex and she's pregnant. Anna gets an abortion, and has the first of two views of healthy women: the woman in the clinic, Jane, also had an abortion around Anna's age; she listens well and respects Anna. Anna's friend Toy and her mother and Josh rally around her, helping her through the procedure, but she knows it's over with Josh. She gets her own apartment--sentimentally just doors away from the "tell-me-again" apartment, even though her mother tries to insist that she come home.
There is a meaningful moment when Anna realizes, looking at her own body, that this is all there is in the world: her. It's just an inkling, though. Just the beginning. It takes her a while to understand what it means: that she's enough for herself.
In the water I watch my feet emerge, disconnected in the far end of the tub. This is me, I think, and I sit up suddenly, like a revelation. I hook my knees over the edge, stare at the curve of my stomach, my bent legs, my feet and I think, this is it. This is everything. And it's not like waiting. And it's not like imagining. And it's not like a story I tell myself. Maybe, I think, it's not boys. It's not Josh. Or Joey. It's not this empty house. Or Josh's cold apartment. I climb out of the tub and stand naked in front of my mom's full-length mirror. All I can hear is the furnace. This is all of me, I think, and I stretch out my arms like a five-pointed star. (p. 115)
At the coffee shop she meets Sam, a boy who's still in school and sexually inexperienced. They have a sweet relationship and he takes her home immediately to have dinner with his family--a loving, tight-knit group who make dinner together, laugh, and support each other. Anna feels for the first time that she belongs, that she knows what a home is. Sam's mother is her second good role model, telling her that she's smart and strong, and can do anything with her life. Still, when Sam goes on vacation and she's alone and insecure about their new relationship, Anna takes a hookup back to her apartment from a cafe, and we realize she's not quite there yet.
At some point Anna drops in unexpectedly on Toy and learns that Toy's "wonderful" boys are all made up. Toy is sad and lonely, too, and has made up stories that make her feel special and valued--that allow her to compete with Anna. Anna leaves, upset.
When Sam returns, their relationship begins in earnest. Anna teaches Sam about sex, and they have clandestine relations in her apartment while lying to Sam's parents that they're "waiting." Soon, on a day when Sam is home feverish and sick from school, he calls her over and they have sex in his room, only to be discovered by Sam's mom, who asks Anna to leave. Anna thinks it's the end of her relationship with Sam, and seeks out another hookup, but ultimately kicks the boy out without sleeping with him. She has had a profound revelation that she doesn't really have it so bad: her mom and Toy are her family. They cared for her in their own ways when she had the abortion, and they depend on her--she is their support structure. She finds the courage to visit Sam's family to apologize, and discovers that she's still welcome. She introduces Sam to Toy--finally seeing her strength, forgiving Toy, and bringing together her worlds, forming her own kind of family.
The writing. Anna's voice is beautifully spare, and so frank and self-aware, even while she struggles with who she is. The short chapters feel episodic and as disjointed as her life feels to her. The repetition of her "tell-me-again-times" story gives the feeling of poetry.
Themes. I loved the way story-telling was a motif that threads through the novel. Anna tells herself stories and stockpiles internal narrations of her life to tell Toy later. Meanwhile, Toy feels the need to tell stories to make herself feel better and more loved than she is. Anna's mother tells the "tell-me-again" story, but then abandons it, not realizing how much of a loss it represents to her daughter.
Part of Anna's storytelling is visual: she cuts out scenes from magazines that represent the sort of idealized life she wishes she had, and tapes them to her wall--girls in nice clothes, yes, but also girls free on swings, and images of happy families. A big turning point for her occurs when her potential hookup looks at her magazine clippings and misunderstands them: "Is this what you want? To look like a slut?"
A motif I liked less was clothing. There is way, way too much description of clothing in the book. I think the point is, like the magazine clippings, to show that Anna and Toy are trying on personas, that they think superficial things will anchor who they are. But the exhaustive description of the outfits they're buying and wearing and borrowing becomes incredibly tiresome. For instance, at a pivotal moment when Sam's mom barges into the room and naked Anna is rocking on top of naked Sam, Anna notices exactly what Sam's mom's business suit and briefcase look like. Really?
The title and cover. Um, not so good. The cover would be okay, I guess, if the title were more useful. What does "uses for boys" mean? Am I missing something? I think it's supposed to convey some of the healthy sexual empowerment Anna has. She does realize that her active sex life isn't slutty--that it's part of who she is, and that it has conveyed important knowledge about relationships to her, and that she enjoys sex. But it sounds almost militant, which is not at all how her personality (or her growth) works in this novel. Anna never once says anything that implies she's using boys. Even when she takes home the boy from the cafe for a one-night stand, she's not using him. She's trying (awkwardly, the only way she thinks she knows how) to feel close to someone, because of her confusion over what she means to Sam while he's away. Plus, in multiple instances she's used by boys, but the title doesn't allow us to intuit that.
In sum: I'm dismayed that this lovely novel has an average 3.15 rating on goodreads. Why are some of the best YA books out there so misunderstood by the very people who supposedly love to read? It's getting to be that I only think a book will actually be good if it has under 3.75 as a rating on goodreads.