Bet on it: Before he could grow a beard, Sigmund Freud wondered, “What do girls want?
Boys and girls are different, of course, and no more so than in their teens. You can see the distinction clearly in two recent novels that present a stark division between the sexes — or at least between what publishers think teenage boys and girls want to read. On the side of sugar and spice: “Along for the Ride,” by Sarah Dessen, who has become a best-seller machine. “Swim the Fly,” the first novel for young adults by Don Calame, plays to the snips-and-snails crowd.
In both books, the main character makes the passage through angsty teenage emotions to learn the value of honesty, of best friends and quests, and of persevering despite fear and the likelihood of failure. Aside from that, they are as different as Mars and Venus.
“Along for the Ride” is the more fully formed novel, a wistful narrative of a young woman’s last summer before heading off to college. Auden West’s parents are divorced academics who forced their brilliant daughter to grow up fast. Her mother is an expert on women in Renaissance literature, and lives by a kind of humorless feminism that can’t understand anything frilly or fun; she is the sort of person who says: “Don’t be bitter. It’s the first instinct of the weak” — with more than a trace of bitterness.
The father is another trope of ivory tower novels, the professor/author who once had a great future ahead of him. These days he is haplessly trying to put together his long-delayed second novel and just as haplessly starting a second family when Auden decides to take up his new wife’s invitation to spend the summer with them.
Over the summer, girl meets boy: silent Eli, a stunt bike rider extraordinaire who has withdrawn after an accident that had horrible consequences. Auden finds it easy to talk to him, and both are insomniacs. As the weeks pass each begins breaking down the other’s shell, and they embark on a series of quests that will give Auden the childhood she missed, including a food fight and a paper route. With the help of new friends, including the bright and girly Maggie, Auden has an epiphany: “Being a girl could be about interest rates and skinny jeans, riding bikes and wearing pink. Not about any one thing, but everything.”
Until this wallflower blooms, the story feels a bit airless. But the satisfying ending will give many readers a lump in their throat.
If “Along for the Ride” is a dreamy chick flick, “Swim the Fly” is a raucous PG-13 comedy. Don Calame, a screenwriter, serves up jokes and gross-outs in the style of filmmakers like Judd Apatow. He tells the story of Matt Gratton and his two best friends, Sean and Coop, who for years have taken on a summertime goal. When they were little, the tasks were uncomplicated, like collecting 1,000 golf balls. But now they are 15, and their hopes and dreams have inevitably come to a single focus: sex. This year’s goal is to see a girl naked, and not just the left breast that one of them saw the year before.
“How are we supposed to see a live naked girl?” Matt asks. “Maybe we better set a more realistic goal for the summer. Like finding Atlantis.”
Coop’s logic, however, is inexorable, like a textbook image of the ascent of man. He’s intent on the project as a necessary first step on the way to possibly someday having actual sex.
The Rockville swim team is not very good, but the boys come back every year because they have always come back every year. Now Matt, in a desperate need to impress the swim team’s new hottie, volunteers to swim the arduous butterfly stroke in relays for the team’s meets over the summer — a task that is clearly beyond his physical gift.
The story of Matt’s attempts to prepare for the big meet, to see a girl naked and to date the aforementioned hottie is punctuated with all of the predictable gross-out scenes, involving vomiting, flatulence and diarrhea. There is the screen-ready wordplay (“tenting your Speedo”), and capers: the boys cross-dress to sneak into the girls’ locker room, and catch a ride to a nude beach. Side characters abound, including a sadistic German swim coach named Ulf, and Matt’s scheming Grandpa Arlo, who shows that you’re never too old to look for love ineptly. Of course, there’s challenge and triumph, and a rousing final race.
In the war between the sexes on the young adult bookshelves, “Swim the Fly” occupies the low ground of offensive, knuckleheaded fun. Which is to say, boys will probably love it. This one did.