Ed. note: I wrote this several months ago and have read many books since, but just thought i’d give an update. Contains spoilers.
It probably undermines my credibility as a literature blogger to admit that books rarely move me to tears. They move me, truly and often, but very rarely to the point of actually crying. Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind is one of the few that can.
Avery gave me this book as a birthday present last year, as a much-needed addition to my ever-expanding collection of LGBTQ (emphasis on L) books—Annie, after all, is more or less the premiere lesbian young adult novel. And as such, it broke many, many rules.
The book takes place during its protagonist, Liza’s, final year of high school. As student council president and all around good girl, she’s very involved in her small, private high school, and only happens to meet Annie, an oddly playful but intriguing fellow senior from another high school, at the Met one afternoon. The two become fast friends and, eventually, end up kissing at Coney Island and realizing that their feelings exceed friendship.
This whole process is extremely organic, contrary to what one might expect. When a book is so obviously—notoriously, if you will—queer, you might expect that the queer relationship will seem forced, or obvious, or inevitable. Garden, however, manages to create such a natural trajectory from strangers, to acquaintances, to friends, to lovers, that it is nothing short of the beautiful, pure young love—love that even the most straight-laced would have trouble finding qualms with (i’d imagine).
Annie and Liza become progressively closer and more comfortable with their love, with one another, and with identifying as gay though neither of their families or communities—Annie’s Italian immigrant parents and inner-city school, and Liza’s kind but conventional family and insular private school—would approve of any of it. After several months of dating in secret, Annie and Liza decide to have sex. Yes, sex, young, lesbian sex.
This, of course, sends so many alarms blaring. You may recall an earlier discussion of Judy Blume’s Forever, which still graces top banned books lists thirty years after its publication for its inclusion of adolescent (premarital) sex. Between a young woman and man. So if that was bad, one can only imagine the taboo against the same situation with two young women. And further, Garden blessedly refrains from portraying the sex as confusing (though, realistically, feelings of confusion do play into the girls’ relationship), or destructive, or empty, or frightening—it is portrayed as warm, sensual, loving, safe, and, yes, beautiful. However, it is not explicit; the descriptions of the sex are appropriately vague, able to strike a balance between age-inappropriate detail and total unnecessary sugar-coating. I’d like to commend Garden’s guts in not only writing one of the first lesbian YA novels, and not only including sex in that novel, but also portraying the sex as ultimately positive.
Inevitably, however, shit does hit the fan, and the girls are discovered—won’t say how or by who in case you decide to read it, and this part is surprisingly intense even though you saw it coming from a mile away. After all, the novel is set up as Liza looking back on her relationship with Annie a year after they first meet, after Liza is already away at MIT and—for reasons unknown to the reader initially—has not spoken to Annie for several months. Which brings us full circle, to the reason for my tears: after going over the story of their relationship in her mind, Liza decides that she is secure enough in her sexuality and love for Annie to call her and hope that things can be resumed after the long hiatus. And things end happily.
In this, Annie perhaps breaks the biggest rule: that gay love stories have to end unhappily. And so, so many do, especially when their characters are young and have even less control over their lives. And of course this is understandable: many real gay love stories, due to unfortunate and unethical forces of culture, society, and prejudice, end unhappily. But it is nice to have happy models out there, especially when they are designed for young people’s consumption. Even better, Annie is not mindlessly happy—Liza and Annie face many complications, including their comfort in labeling themselves as gay, not being able to spend as much time as they want together, coming out to their families and friends, etc., not to mention universal relationship drama. But in the end—even after a lengthy separation—they find each other again, and the reader is left with reasonable hope that they will stay together for as long as the relationship is happy for them. Which is what brought tears to my eyes.