Friday, January 13, 2006

Girl Afraid

British author Sue Limb tackles the perils of being a teenage girl.

Adolescence is a challenge no matter which side of the Atlantic you're raised on, but for British teen Jess Jordan—the protagonist of Girl Nearly 16: Absolute Torture—the summer before her sweet sixteen is a veritable disaster. Not only is she trapped on a tedious road trip with her mum and grandmother, but she's miles away from her secret boyfriend Fred with only a dying cell-phone and her nagging insecurities to keep her company. The drama only deepens when Jess, whose parents split when she was little, discovers her dad has a secret boyfriend of his own. The follow-up to UK author Sue Limb's teen lit sensation Girl 15, Charming But Insane, Absolute Torture deftly handles adult themes like sexuality, family dysfunction and even death, while still channeling that mad rush of emotions that comes with being a teenager.

"I wanted to write something sophisticated," Limb says from her home in the south of England, "because I think teenagers are quite more sophisticated than people give them credit for. Your passions are so extreme. Your brain is so fresh and new." As Jess juggles various relationships and personal crises—including the possibility that Fred is cheating on her with her best friend—keen readers will detect a hint of Jane Austen with a Judy Blume sensibility. "And a bit of Shakespeare, as well," the author admits with a modest laugh.

Limb says while Absolute Torture is fiction, she drew on life experiences to help craft her characters. "[Jess] is a bit like my daughter Betsy, who was 17 at the time I wrote the book," Limb explains. "I liked the idea of a girl who was outgoing but insecure. Jess is not gorgeous, but she bewitches people with her wit." Though Limb did have a friend who got divorced and came out of the closet, she says it was a different sort of relationship that inspired the character of Jess' father. "My godmother was gay, though it was never discussed with my parents--even when I was older," says Limb, who saw her as something of a role model. "She was more prosperous and free. She and her girlfriend had all kinds of adventures and traveled the world."

If Absolute Torture were written in the States, we might expect protests against the gay-inclusive book from right-wing "family" groups, but Limb says there's been "no negative feedback" to the book's initial release in Britain. (It was picked up by Random House's Delacorte Press imprint last fall). "We don’t really have the assertive kind of fundamentalist groups that you do in the States. Liberal values are fairly de rigueur."

Even more surprising than British audiences' reaction to the gay character is the reaction of Jess herself. She's tickled, well, pink. "It's brilliant! It's so cool!" she tells her dad. "Wait till I tell all my friends! They'll be so jealous!" While such a positive outlook might be a bit optimistic even in an enlightened England, Limb wanted to send a message of support to queer youth and children of gay parents. "I try to avoid being heavy-handed, but ultimately it's important to show positive role models," she says. "I wanted people who don’t know gay households to see that it's not a problem."


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