The Go-Between – L. P. Hartley

“Isolation” would be the single word I’d use to describe the feeling that L. P. Hartley’s most prominent novel evoked in me. The Go-Between’s hero’s, Leo Colston, coming-of-age story is marked with a deep sense of sadness and loss of innocence that he could not share with anyone, and therefore his feelings buried in a past time. The novel sophistically narrates the sense of loneliness, shedding of naivete and realization of the complication of human feelings, all on top of a peaceful, upper-class backdrop, seemingly shielded from the chaos of the world outside.

Leo Colston is a character with a lot of emotional depth but little social connection. His social status prevents him from connecting with his host family, even though they are welcoming of his stay. The prologue sets the tone for the novel, and also foreshadows the loneliness that Leo will eventually live with throughout his life, despite his deep compassion and observant mind. Throughout the novel, Leo often withdraws into his own thoughts, or finds solace being alone in the field or farm. As the key player in two converging love affairs, he also is a secret holder, pushing him deeper into his own solitude and preventing him from trusting and opening his heart. Near the end of the novel, Leo reflects, “I was a Tower of Silence, on which lay whitening the bones of a dead secret – no, not dead in that sense, but very much alive and death-dealing and fatal.” So in every aspect of his life, not getting along with schoolmates, holding a lower class social status and involuntarily being the centre of a secretive scandalous affair, Leo finds himself locked away from the world around him.

Leo’s insistence of learning what ‘spooning’ is from Ted Burgess is symbolic of his loss of innocence. Some great pieces of coming-of-age stories, such as Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, portray the painful and sad moment when naivete is lost and the realization of reality sets in. L. P. Hartley joins the ranks of amazing writers in describing this sadness, in The Go-Between’s case, also mixed is nostalgia and guilt. Void of a fatherly figure, Leo is drawn towards Ted, but their relationship is complicated. While Leo wants to be loyal to Ted, he could not have fully understood Ted’s motivation in using Leo as a go-between, and therefore when Leo comes to the maturity state to comprehend his role in Ted and Marian’s affair, he experiences a strong sense of abandonment and distrust.

In coming-of-age, Leo also starts grasping more abstract sense of morality through his role as a go-between. Though he involuntarily facilitated the forbidden affair, he “had a strong sense of ought and ought not. […] Now for some such scruple I felt constrained to take preventive action – and at a sacrifice to myself.” This is no other than altruism – which grew from a boyhood crush on Marian and boyhood friendship with Ted and Hugh. Leo, in growing up, has learnt to put other’s well-being above himself, because he feels a sense of responsibility to the situation that arose.

Finally, Leo develops a budding understanding of the sophistication of human emotions. When Marian and Ted turn on him, Leo’s world seems to have collapsed. Marian was the centre of his admiration – his “enchantress” – and with her anger towards Leo, she took away the world he held so dearly. Leo finally confronts the reality that he means little to Marian and realizes his true role in her relationship. But with this he also starts to comprehend the complexity of Marian’s emotion and her place between her affair with Ted and engagement to Hugh. Leo reflects, “I feared for Lord Trimingham, I wept with Marian, but for Ted I grieved.” Perhaps Leo feels the sense of tragedy of three people’s lives and bearing witness to each person’s angle of the story, is the only person who truly could understand what love is.

Unfortunately the tragedy and the deep isolation that Leo was put in made him distant to his emotions and could not transform his compassion and understanding of love into his own emotions. In the epilogue, L. P. Hartley invites readers to reflect on Marian and Ted’s affair – was it true love and was it beautiful? As readers had followed Leo’s footsteps throughout the entire novel, we have the chance to judge for ourselves what love is. This is where Leo’s world of facts and imagination collide and he ponders one last time: “A foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of their language but compelled to listen to it, I turned into the street.” The Go-Between is a sophisticated novel in essence, and the weaving themes of love and coming-of-age bring out human nature’s deepest and most forbidden desires.

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The Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy

The Dud Avocado is an energetic and funny story about a 21-year-old who is very persistent on exploring Europe herself, carrying a defiant attitude with her everywhere. She reminds me a little of the girl-against-the-world motif, though I haven’t read something quite as sizzling and, I would say, tragic, as Sally Jay’s story. The chaotic backdrop of 1950s Europe, the twisted motivations of each character and the naivety of a young and attractive woman come together for a one of a kind coming of age tale.

Sally Jay’s journey is filled with parties that end in very comical and unexpected ways. Elaine Dundy showcases her brilliant talent in describing people – their gestures, language, attitude – and brings each person together to form vivid partying scenes and endless nights. The lavish social gatherings where elites backstab and steal and form plots against one another are chaotic and horrendous, but are also luxurious and generous: “by merely clattering up the used cups and saucers onto their trays, flicking their napkins over the table, the better to clear the stage for disaster, […], they could predict for you the whole miracle that was going to take place four hours later when you […] would emerge, talking the most utter balderdash, spilling beans of shattering truths or equally shattering lies, singing with friends, fighting with strangers, promising favors, promising love, scrambling into bed and clambering out again […]” At some of these parties, Sally Jay ends up in trouble; at others, she learns truths about the people she used to trust, and therefore “grows up”. It is a brutal coming-of-age story because she pays for her lessons with high prices, from losing her passport to being betrayed by a man she thinks she loves. Mid way through the novel, Sally Jay reflects: “Well, I’d certainly stayed out late and eaten what I liked. And I was meeting people I hadn’t been introduced to. […] I was more or less in jail. Uncle Roger, I thought, you can’t say I’m not trying.”

Not only was the social background of her journey chaotic, the motives of the people who accompany her – lovers, co-workers, friends – questionable and twisted, leaving Sally Jay lonely and abandoned. This was not very apparent in the first part of the book, but the foreshadowing of her sleeping alone many nights despite attracting the attention of many bachelors leads to her apparent solitude in the second and third parts. This feeling is emphasized by the dramatic change in the atmosphere: from energetic parties to the barrenness of the countryside, confined by the pouring rain and heartbreak that she experiences for the first time. In the second backdrop, however, she becomes wiser and start to see the truth without the veil of wealth and lust. It is loneliness that allows Sally Jay to “come of age” and eventually find what she wants in life (very unexpected she chose to become a librarian, which has a large amount of time being alone).

Sally Jay reflects some classic sentimentality the youth finding their way to adulthood. She is a headstrong woman who has the power to refuse the things she does not like, but it still takes a long time for her to realize what she does like. When she found a man who loves her and they share a mutual deep relationship, Sally Jay, however, recognizes: “I tried to remember one minute that whole weekend when Marion and I weren’t either feeding people, or clearing up from doing it, or preparing to do it again. And presumably she never stopped doing it. But I couldn’t quite see why just because she did, I should.” So she forsakes the traditional responsibilities of a woman, and she has the wealth and power to do so, but she is still lost in a world of possibilities: “what happens when your curiosity just suddenly gives out? When the will and the energy snap and it all seems so once-over-again?” Sally Jay – or rather Elaine Dundy – is so charming, however, that I root for her till the end, even when she is afraid she won’t “burst into bloom”, like “a dud avocado”. Once again, the themes of coming-of-age appears: the low self-esteem and anxiety of a young woman who does not have a life plan.

Through all her lovers and adventures, Sally Jay in the end still found a place she belongs. “The Dud Avocado” is a coming of age story as much as it is a feminist empowerment story. If you are not charmed by Sally Jay’s misadventures, then you’d still be dazzled by her bewildering world.

Chocolates for Breakfast – Pamela Moore

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At 18, Pamela Moore wrote a coming-of-age story, but it is rather a crashing-into-age “tragedy”. Even though the characters announce that they “are not capable of tragedy” and their lives are a “child’s game that came to an end”,  I can’t help but feel a sense of overwhelming sadness as the story closes, as if the protagonist had failed her life. It was then that I catch myself doing the thing that the parents, in the story and in real life, do and think for their children, and I realize the ultimate struggle and conflict of this story: how to gain power and freedom when one is not ready for it.

Struggling against parents is one of the major themes of the novel. From the first chapter, Courtney laments about her relationship with her mother, “why do we have to pretend to the parents?” The girls lie and avoid their parents when needed so they can achieve a sense of freedom: going to parties at night, drinking with boys and having affairs at their command. Inadvertently, the lies distance them from their parents, and build up an illusion that they have complete control over their lives. Courtney and Janet learn to become masters at controlling the people they meet, through dates and love affairs. Their attractive youth becomes one of their weapons and they equate sexual liberty and breaking laws with power. But it is not just defying parental rules that make them free, it is also breaking away from their parent’s influence. Courtney resists her parents advice, but it is Janet who displays her struggle emotionally and physically as pivotal points of the novel.

In the two scenes between Janet and her father, dynamic and different attack strategies were utilized by the characters. These attacks are seen again and again in many different stories of parent and children, which may be different in words but the same in essence. Janet’s position is her right to privacy and freedom, while her father’s is his right to maintain guidance and control over his underage daughter. The struggle starts from an isolated incident to emotional and accusatory language, escalating in intensity. This is how family relationships are destroyed, from small incidents, building up to accumulating unresolved bitterness to the point where emotion and fact cannot be separated. Once tangled up in this mess, the characters have no way out.

Not unlike parental struggle, which is both physical and emotional, the female protagonists also plunge themselves into love affairs that result in damage. Courtney’s affair with Cabot, which under current laws can be considered statutory rape, met with strong disapproval from her wise guardian Al Leone. This love started out to be a “Romeo and Juliet” type and seemed to head out to a strong and glamorous finish, but Moore chose to let the affair meet with reality and end with pain. The centre piece of the lost of innocence in “Chocolates for Breakfast” is not losing virginity sexually, but rather Courtney’s realization that love is “ugly” and never perfect. It is then she learns to manipulate her lovers, as seen with George, Anthony, Charles etc. She moves from one to another without pain, just like her moving from one restaurant to another, “I get tired of the same places.” Perhaps this is her declaration of sexual independence, that she is not in need of one single man. Readers may disagree with Courtney’s way of finding sexual liberty, but it is no doubt she is making her statement loud and clear. To me, it is a tragedy, because I could no longer see what her value in love is, though she longingly wants to be loved.

And as the girls learn about their life and values, I find myself judging them, disapproving of their decisions, being disappointed and at the same time cheering them on. I react to their actions the way their fictional parents do, and realize the girls did achieve freedom because they made decisions independent of other’s judgments and faced the consequences. The story is a complete coming-of-age tale, with strong female protagonists who refuse to be victims. When the book was published, it probably gained attention for its sexual themes, but I believe it is the psychological and physical struggles that make the story so riveting and moving and relatable to anyone who is going through or remembers the difficulties of growing up.