Normally I love being able to relate to fictional characters, but this time it really scared me. Joyce Carol Oates’ writing feels so real, so honest. Merissa – one of three protagonists – comes to life, as if the author was writing her own life.
From the outside, Merissa is “the perfect one”. She is popular among her many friends. Does well in school, getting good grades and an early admission to Brown. Good at sports. Good looking in a skinny kind of way. Merissa is well aware of this, and of the fact that it makes many of her friends are jealous. She revels in her own success, looking down at those weaker than herself.
It didn’t take long before I discovered that Merissa’s character is far more complex than that. She has high expectations on her, both from others and herself. Those expectations are hard to meet, and it seems like the only thing that will please her dad. At the same time she is struggling to get over the suicide of her best friend, a suicide for which she takes blame. In secret, she devotes to cutting, because it’s the only way she can feel in control.
Reading the book, I recognized many of her feelings. I’m not sure if it is because her character is described so well, or because I have a lot in common with her. In fact (though I hate to admit it) I do. I know the feeling of being in a superior position, I know the disgust she feels of some types of weakness. It’s not as if I self harm (never have, never will) but I seem to know what that feels like too and that scares me.
“Hannah felt the sharp-notched vertebrae of Merissa’s spine through her sweater, and Merissa felt the fleshiness of Hannah’s back beneath the tight ridge of her bra. Quickly the girls stepped back, as if each had been made to know too much of the other in that instant.”
As the story progress, other problems develop. Cutting is no longer enough – instead, Merissa finds a thrill in breaking those expectations, in letting people down. She neglects her friends as well as her field hockey team, teachers and family just for the fun of it. In a way, I was almost relieved when she got so deep into her depression. It sort of proved to me that I’m pretty damn different from this character, that I wasn’t as mean as she. At the same time it scared me – is this where I’m going? I have to keep telling myself that Merissa is a fictional character, not for real, not for real…
I wish I could be as impressed with the rest of the book, but I wasn’t.The other two central figures are not at all as relatable. Although they are realistic in some ways, I can neither understand nor like them. I feel awfully sorry for them both, but that’s an entirely different thing.
Nadia would probably be considered more normal than Merissa by most people. She is very immature, and always act before thinking. She is slightly overweight, but of course that seems like grotesquely obese to her. Just like Merissa she is dealing with the suicide of her best friend, as well as other problems. In her case: a hopeless crush, a not-so-understanding family, general vulnerability and mean, tacky rumors. None of this is her fault, and it’s not (mainly) why I find it hard to relate to her. What I don’t like about her is how she always seems to find someone else to blame. She can’t help being easily upset, but it’s not her teachers’ fault either.
I saved Tink for last, since she is present throughout the book. (Although that would have been a reason to put her first. Nevermind.) She was the friend of both Merissa and Nadia, and when she commits suicide it affects them deeply. I can barely bear to read their descriptions of her, as some sort of super-heroine that she really wasn’t.
Merissa remains the real honor of this book, and what an honor.