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November 21, 2010

Lemon by Cordelia Strube

A long time ago, I decided that I’d had enough of youthful protagonists, who are always the smartest character in the room, whose ability to control their own narrative is unlikely for a teenager, whose cool detachment from matters at hand never quite belies a author’s conscious attempt to be writing something more than a young-adult novel, who keep being written into novels that have absolutely no subtext and therefore really don’t qualify as full grown-up novels. (I’m looking at you, Blue van Meer, Lee Fiora, etc. etc..) These characters for whom c0mparisons to Holden Caulfield are always invoked blurbishly, because it’s easy, but so inaccurate and positively blasphemous.

But then there is Lemon, narrator and protagonist of Cordelia Strube’s novel of the same name. A misfit in a broken world where all structures of authority have broken down– at one point, she pains at her friend’s mother’s innocence about what her daughter really gets up to. Lemon scoops ice cream in the food court. Her biological mother gave her up for adoption, her adoptive parents fell apart, and the sanctuary she found with a capable ex-stepmother starts crumbling after the stepmother suffers a breakdown.

Lately, the odd time I stumble onto a high school girl’s twitter feed, I can’t help despairing about what kind of world my daughter is going to have to come of age in. Lemon does nothing to assuage my fears, but her articulation of the problem is heartening– what are we going with a spectrum that moves from “princess” to “porn-star”? With her steel-toe boots and baggy clothing, Lemon is written off as a “dyke” by her classmates, exempting her from the mad scramble for acceptance enacted by her best friend Rossi who has sex with anyone who asks her (and those who don’t bother to), who pretends she likes it to make them feel good about themselves. Who feels utterly awful about herself, and then masturbates on a webcam because a Queen Bee asks her to, and when this gets broadcast all over the internet, discovers she’s been set up for a fall.

Lemon remembers her friend, who “used to be an artist before she was a boytoy”. Whose body was used for handsprings and gymnastics, before it became disposible. She remembers when her classmates didn’t pull weapons on each other, and girls didn’t compete to give blow-jobs,  and parents were capable of being a reassuring force.

Lemon is a bleak book, its home and school awfulness augmented by Lemon’s volunteer position in a pediatric cancer ward. Worst of all is that Lemon is simply an onlooker in an age of onlookers, powerless to do anything but just keep walking by, no matter how much what she faces disturbs her. Part of this is also her own survival mechanism– she has numbed herself to loss and pain, determined that by not reacting to anything, she cannot be hurt.

Things get way bad before they even hint at getting better, the narrative confirming all our worst fears about “the world out there”. And yet. Her one critical voice is a kind of beacon of hope, and it’s hilarious, smart and authentic. The world is crumbling around her, but Lemon calls it as she sees it, her point of view deadpan and refreshing. Her point of view is underlined by the books she reads, a gamut from Samuel Richardson to Catherine Cookson. Her mind is stuffed with trivia, which she uses to try to make sense of and provide context for the world around her, and the context is always just a little bit skewed– she’s only sixteen after all, so this youthful protagonist isn’t too good to be true, though a young reader would be less conscious of that then I am (and this is just one of many reasons why this is determinedly an adult novel).

With eight books behind her, Strube is perhaps far enough along in her life and her career to not have her young protagonist be her proxy. Perhaps it takes an experienced author to write young people really well? Though no doubt, there are exceptions to this, and I could encounter them forever, but Lemon is indeed a wonder. It’s deep entrenched in my mind, which is disturbing but fascinating, and I’ll not be forgetting this character any time soon.

Truly, one of the finest books I’ve encountered this year, and ever.

3 thoughts on “Lemon by Cordelia Strube”

  1. steph says:

    The day I bought my copy of Lemon I accidentally left it behind at my sister’s apt since we were looking over a bunch of books. She read it and wondered if it might not be too depressing, if I wouldn’t like it. Thought I would like Amphibian by Carla Gunn better.

    Reading your review I see where her worries come from, but I think I can handle it, especially if you say it’s one of the finest books you’ve ever read. So long as there is something I can relate to, I’m sure I’ll be fine. Besides, if I bought it, it must have appealed to me in some way.

    Good to know, too, that you find it definitely adult. I’ll keep that in mind when recommending books at the store.

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, I think because it’s “definitely adult” that it’s a book that teenagers would totally, totally love.

  2. Panic says:

    The Toronto Public Library system classifies Lemon as “Death–Fiction.” Death fiction! The part of me that wore black lipstick at 19 is pleased.

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