Book Review: Towelhead by Alicia Erian

First off a warning:  This book has a mess of issues for anyone who is easily offended.  The title is obviously problematic; so much so that the film based on the book was renamed “Nothing is Private.”  Second of all, if you are bothered by the explicit and frank discussion of sexuality, especially in regards to a 13 year old girl, then I’d advise you to skip this one. 

I began Towelhead with a gasp and a shudder.  I ended the novel with much the same reactions but for very different reasons.  Alicia Erian’s book begins like falling into a freezing pond–you keep on trying to warm up but you can’t  get comfortable.  The story is told in the first person by a thirteen year old girl named Jasira.  She is being sent to live with her father because of sexual complications between her mother and her mother’s live in boyfriend.  The set up and the context here are very well done–Erian has us looking at the mixed up mind of American sexuality.  None of the adults provide much guidance or any good sense of boundaries–Jasira’s mother is distant and has chosen the boyfriend over her child; the mother’s boyfriend shows a tremendous lack of judgment and is perhaps a predator; Jasira’s father is  out of his depth in counseling his maturing daughter–bound as he is by his maleness and his discomfort with the feminine .  I put the book down frequently during the opening pages asking myself, “Is this really what goes on today?”  If so, we have a lot of dysfunction to repent of.

The question that Erian seems to lay at the readers’ feet is this:  “Has America failed its girls?”  Someone has to be looking out for young girls.  One cannot ship them away like the mother, nor can one ignore their maturation, like the father.  What shall our response be?  In this regard, the novel is bleak.  As a parent, I wanted to lock the doors and shut all the windows to cocoon for a while–for if this is the world we’re handing on to our daughters . . . .

The story is further complicated by Jasira’s next door neighbor, Mr. Vuoso, and her boyfriend, Thomas.  Vuoso is clearly the villain of the piece.  And as for Thomas, you want to cheer for Jasira because she’s found a boyfriend who is a high school classmate of hers–but he’s as messed up regarding sexuality as the rest of the cast of characters! (Perhaps he gets a bit of a pass since he too is a minor and confused about sex but still . . . . )

Into the bleakness of this suburban nightmare come Melina and Gil.  They are neighbors of Jasira’s and are the primary light and moral compass of the novel.  Unfortunately, their dominance of the last third of the book is what veers off into a strange sort of parody.  Up until this point, we’re used to flawed characters and complex portrayals.  This has been a strength of Erian’s writing–we really sense the ambiguity in a character like Jasira’s father or her boyfriend–we like them and find them distasteful at the same time.  However, Melina and Gil provide all the stability and all the answers that Jasira could seek.  It seems like a cop out.  (I knew the book was in trouble when all the main characters gathered at Gil and Melina’s house–a la some sort of sitcom comedy of errors–a sort of Three’s Company or Full House but with gallows humor. Hence my recurrent gasp and shudder.)  Up to the last third, realism had been Erian’s strength–you wince and laugh.  It just seemed at the end that the author flinched–she needed a happy ending to convince us that, yes, it will be all right.  It also seemed that Gil and Melina function as the God in the Machine in the novel–robbing Jasira of her independence, including the freedom to make some very harmful mistakes.

It’s not a major quibble, though.  All in all this is a very good novel and deserves to be read.  It asks some hard questions about our relationships with the next generation–especially in regards to gender and sexuality.  In particular, if you have daughters, you might have to read this one.  It won’t be pleasant.  Erian’s prose can be searing and Jasira’s naivete can be frustrating.  However, the book is certainly worth the journey.  It might wake you up.  It probably will bother you (on a bunch of fronts).  But it is worth your time.  But you won’t thank me for having you read it.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Easy choice, going back to the 1990’s time machine: Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes.

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