It may not have actually happened this way, but this is how I remember learning about sex: My mother, when I was 11, bought me a copy of Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s 1978 novel “A Woman of Independent Means.” There is sex in that book, along with other valuable things that I came to understand later, including, for instance, the radical idea that a woman might possess independent means.
Yet to my 11-year-old self, sex was unquestionably the book’s most confusing and interesting feature. What did it mean, this inexplicable action that somehow helped determine the course of its heroine’s life? Wouldn’t it be a nicer story without it?
Over the next few years I found answers, as have so many young women, in the work of Judy Blume, who turns 80 years old today.
Three of Blume’s novels for older teenagers and adults, which also ended up on my bookshelf through the canniness of my mother, became my high school gospel. “Summer Sisters,” “Smart Women” and the infamous “Forever”: I lent them to friends, the covers fell off, the spines broke, whole sections fell out. When I return to my childhood bedroom now, if I remove “Smart Women” from the shelf, the glue from the book’s binding flakes off in my hands.
There is, I have learned as an adult, quite a lot of fiction about women’s experience of sex and sexuality. Some of it is good, and most of it is appropriately dark and twisty. Colette’s entire oeuvre; Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”; Choderlos de Laclos’s “Les Liaisons dangereuses”; Anais Nin’s fantastically disturbing erotica — is there something about the French? — and on, and on. All of these books are written for an audience that has either experienced sex or held long familiarity with it as an idea. If my mother had put Nin’s “Delta of Venus” on my adolescent reading list, I don’t think the word “sex” is one I would have cared to utter, think of, act upon or see in print ever again.
There is an obvious niche for fiction about women and sexuality intended to be read by girls; obvious, and obviously complicated. In books not written for young women, young women’s sexuality is often either fetishized or depicted with a bleak hopelessness. (The latter school isn’t wholly inaccurate: Perceptions of girls’ incipient sexuality have often resulted in those girls’ distinct disadvantage, abuse and worse.) For young women themselves, however, the subject of sexuality is often approached with extreme Puritanism. The famous scene from “Mean Girls” in which a sex-ed teacher tells his class “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die” is funny not because it’s an aberrant representation of near-universal messaging to teenage girls, but because it’s an accurate one.
Blume’s take on the subject, by contrast, was always thrillingly frank, titillating in a ho-hum kind of way. In “Forever” (1975), for instance, likely her most famous book about sex — and a mainstay, even recently, on lists of the most-frequently banned books — Blume suggested that young women could have sex, get pregnant and not die; have sex, fall in love, fall out of love and be ok with it; have qualms about having sex, have open conversations with their partner about those qualms, and have better sex because of it; and have a family who would not only encourage them to have sex safely, but also happily help them get birth control.
Yet while “Forever,” which follows a high school senior through her first serious relationship, was in many ways formative for me, “Summer Sisters” was more significant by far. It too begins in high school, where its protagonist, Victoria, meets the impossibly popular and appealing Caitlin. Caitlin stuns the quieter, socially sidelined Victoria by inviting her to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer, beginning a friendship that becomes the defining relationship of both girls’ teenage years and twenties. As they enter their first romantic relationships, have their hearts broken, and take wildly different approaches to love, the novel probes the delicate ways in which women’s ideas about and reactions to sex are wound up in their friendships with other women.
I had a summer sister for the last two years of high school, during which I read Blume’s books most avidly. Shakira was my mirror and my opposite: A petite, curly-haired, big-laughed, musical, blonde (now-former) member of the Mormon church with whom I spent long hours at the pool, ate too many popsicles, cried over maudlin romantic movies and talked, a lot, about boys. She had boyfriends during those two years; I did not. Our friendship spun into its own kind of romance. In photos from that time, we laugh at one another in rapt ease; whoever else might be in the picture, the two of us are obviously a pair.
The summer before we started college — before I moved to St. Louis and she to Fort Collins, and the unique spell of our adolescent friendship morphed into something more adult and, inevitably, less miraculous — I drove to Shakira’s house and dropped “Summer Sisters” in her mailbox. From my perspective in that moment, what existed between us was eternal in its present state: A given in life, as sure as my confidence that I would only ever be able to mumble, giggle and blush in the presence of a crush, or that I would always feel most at home in Denver, the city of my birth.
“Summer Sisters” had told me, in clear and human terms, that everything I believed as a teenager would change. I knew that when I slipped the novel into the dark metal box hanging next to Shakira’s door. But I didn’t believe it. Yet when the things I took as truths did change — when my friendships grew deeper and more complex but less golden; when I finally found the courage to tell the wall behind a boy’s head just how I felt about him; when I moved to New York, and out of a relationship that I’d thought might last a lifetime — at each of those moments, I held “Summer Sisters” in my mind. I had thought the book was a promise of adventure to come, a treat to divide with a best friend as if it didn’t foretell the end of the clarion period we’d shared. Yet the novel turned out to fulfill a more profound promise, one I had, as an adolescent, missed. It was a guide to weathering the extreme and painful shifts that accompany the shift from young-womanhood to womanhood. My own progress through those shifts was easier because of it.
The literary space reserved for narratives that dwell on the complexities of women’s lives, the various pains that will infiltrate each one, is still too small. Yet also worthy of expansion is that small fictive corner in which women are shown to be not only adaptable, but able and eager to find joy in adaptation. When I was younger, Judy Blume taught me to view the imminent alterations in my life with self-assuredness. Her work has since, with relentless compassion, reminded me that everything about me and around me will change, many times, and I will be ok.
I hope Blume enters this new decade with something of that same surety. Aging, like female sexuality, is subject to a host of unkind and untruthful stigmas. If Blume keeps writing — I hope she will — she may subvert those limiting ideas, with a near-unnoticeable gentleness, for those who follow. For herself, I can only repeat some essential lessons from her own novels: Don’t drink in the hot tub, stay firm in the belief that ponchos are sexy, be wary of the attractive young men of Martha’s Vineyard. Oh, also, have fun. Happy birthday.