In Elizabeth Berg’s 1997 novel Joy School, we meet (or are reintroduced) to Katie, a thirteen-year-old Texas transplant battling her grief at the loss of her mother and the complexities of growing up under her dictatorial father. Unbeknownst to me, Joy School is actually a follow-up to Berg’s Durable Goods — but I read the book as a stand-alone and enjoyed it without completely knowing the back story. It definitely comes across.
Katie is living in Missouri with her dad, housekeeper Ginger and her dog. Her older sister Diane has run off to Mexico (not sure where that plotline came from, precisely) with a boyfriend and not kept in much contact with Katie. She seems isolated, utterly alone — detached from the entire world around her. Waiting patiently for a letter day in and day out from friend Cherylanne, Katie begins to look to her few friends as mother figures, carefully following their advice on kissing, dressing and general behavior. Katie seems lost.
And then she meets Jimmy, a 23-year-old man who works at a nearby gas station, reads literature and enjoys playing checkers with Katie. After she falls and crashes through the ice while skating at a neighboring pond, Jim offers her his jacket, helps her warm up — and changes Katie’s life forever. She’s instantly smitten, hopes against hope that Jim could someday return her affections and . . . of course, he can’t. It’s all innocence and friendship. Isn’t it?
This is a “coming of age” novel if I’ve ever seen one, carefully following Katie’s trials as she struggles to make lasting friendships, understand the motives of young men and deal with her intense feelings of longing for Jimmy. Berg’s writing is skilled, light and powerful — this book is sparse, weighted like snow. There isn’t any real “action” in the plot; people move around, come and go, think and talk. It’s mostly thinking — all of Katie’s interpretations, her attempts to understand love, a concept we’ve all been trying to explain for millenniums.
It’s a good thing I read it in December. If you came across Joy School in June, I think you’d probably plunge it back to the center of your stack. It just feels cold — the writing, the vulnerability of the characters, the sense of danger and transience lying just below the surface of the story. I understood what sort of frightening man Katie’s father was before anything was ever said outright, though it really wasn’t. I didn’t think that nervousness would affect me so much as a reader, but it did.
Overall, my feelings here are complicated. On one hand, I really liked Katie as a character, felt for all she was going through and wished she had more guidance than brash friend Taylor, old and wily Nona or friend and housekeeper Ginger. On the other hand, I had a hard time emotionally cluing in to this story. I can certainly relate to young and first love, but it was physically painful for me to watch Katie concocting elaborate stories of her life with Jimmy that I knew could never be. It really was just . . . a sad book. A sad, wintry book.
If you like Berg, as I do from her excellent novel Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, you’ll be intrigued by her beautiful metaphors. If you’re looking for something loaded with plot and dialogue, skip this one — it’s all internal, and sometimes a little too much so.
3.5 out of 5!