Gabrielle Zevin is best known for her 2006 novel Elsewhere, which was nominated for, or won, several writing awards, including the Borders Original Voices Award. In 2007, she was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay for Conversations With Other Women. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, her second young adult novel, was published in 2007. Zevin is a Harvard graduate and now lives in New York City.
When she was six months old, Naomi Paige Porter was shipped from Kratavo, Moscow, to Brooklyn, New York. She had been found in an empty typewriter case in the back pew of an Eastern Orthodox Church. Now, she is the co-editor, along with William Blake Landsman (Will), of The Phoenix, her high school yearbook. After working on it one day, they discovered they left the yearbook camera in the building. They flipped a coin to see which of them would have to go back to retrieve it; it was tails, and Will goes home. Naomi retrieved the camera but fell on the stairs and hit her head on the front steps of the school—or at least that is what Naomi is told, for she remembers nothing until she hears James Larkin’s voice twenty-two minutes later.
Naomi is in the ambulance and James is next to her, holding her hand; she hears him tell the EMTs that he is her boyfriend and will ride with her. The pain behind her left eye is intense, but James does his best to take her mind off it. She repays him by gouging his hand hard enough to draw blood when a paroxysm of pain grips her.
At the hospital, she knows her name and she knows she lives in Tarrytown, New York; however, she does not know what year it is. She realizes she was born to be an amnesiac because she has always tried to fill in the blanks of her life. Near her left eye she gets nine stitches and has a large bump. Naomi asks James if he is her boyfriend; he tells her he wishes he was and almost lied to her about it once he discovered she has lost her memory, but he does not want to take advantage of her condition. When Naomi’s dad enters, James slips out unnoticed.
Her dad is not very good at being a nurse; when Naomi asks if her mother is coming, he is incredulous. She does not remember that her parents divorced four years ago and her mother now lives in the city. Her parents used to write travel memoir books—he wrote and she photographed. The last memory Naomi has of her mother is from her sixth-grade year when she went to see her mother’s photography show. Her father says her mother will not be coming because she and Naomi have not talked in years. He begins to make a list of all the things she has forgotten, including the existence of her boyfriend Ace who is away at tennis camp.
Naomi’s first visitor is Will, and she likes him immediately—even though she does have to ask him if he is her boyfriend, Ace. Will reminds her he is her best friend and tells her she is “still insanely, unfairly, torturously beautiful.” He also reminds her he does not like Ace. James Larkin, he tells Naomi, is a new student and a senior. Will gives her a mix CD titled “Songs for a Teenage Amnesiac, Vol. I.”
The next visitor to Naomi’s room is her mother. She is a pretty woman, and Naomi nearly cries because it feels like forever since she has seen her. Her mother does cry, and Naomi asks why her parents got divorced; she admits she met a boy she knew in high school, got pregnant, and now lives with Nigel and their three-and-a-half-year-old Chloe. Her father is understandably bitter, and Naomi says she is “repulsed” and feels as if her mother “is a slut.”
Her father’s latest book is about the divorce, so Naomi plans to read it and learn more about her forgotten past. She feels more like an orphan than she ever has, feeling “obsolete” now that her mother has another daughter. She cries and pretends to sleep. Her father kisses her forehead and tells her he will never leave her, something he would never say to her if she were awake.
The doctors determine Naomi cannot remember much of anything past sixth grade, something she already knows, but also find that the trauma is not sufficient for that amount of time. They conclude she is repressing—something Naomi feels is ridiculous. Finally, they give her a bottle of aspirin, and send her home with more questions than answers. “The human brain is mysterious,” they say.
She does not know which car is theirs, but her town is familiar. Her house, however, is different than the one she remembers; her father explains they moved after the divorce. Instead of an older home, colorful and lived-in, her father chose a modern, rather sterile house. Naomi’s room is more colorful than the rest of the house, and she feels comfortable in it. At the hospital she avoided looking into a mirror; here she catches a glimpse of herself and barely recognizes the girl she sees.
Now that she is finally alone, Naomi decides it is time to get reacquainted with herself. Though she only has memories of herself at age twelve, she instinctively feels older; and what she sees in the mirror confirms that. As she looks around the room, she sees school uniforms and tennis whites hanging neatly pressed. It is an organized room, and Naomi examines the four yearbooks on the shelf—one for every year since seventh grade. She is listed as “not pictured” in nearly every group photo; she must have been taking the pictures.
In her nightstand, Naomi finds birth control pills and a food diary, and she has to wonder what kind of girl writes down everything she has eaten for the last six months. Finally she looks through her backpack and finds her cell phone. When she scrolls through it, she does not recognize any of the names, and she wonders if Naomi Porter is a girl people want to know. Suddenly she wants to call her mother. When she does, Chloe answers and misunderstands who is calling. She hears “Naomi” as “Nomi” and tells her mother “nobody” is on the phone. Naomi hangs up and feels even lonelier.
She wakes to the sound of someone tapping on her window; it is Ace (she recognizes him from his pictures) and he climbs into her room as if he has done it many times. If anyone had asked her right then, Naomi would tell them he is not her type. He kisses her and she finds it an unpleasant experience; he gives her some wristbands and she is not impressed. Ace scolds himself for “choking” (not doing the smooth thing), something that usually does not happen to him. She says she is tired and he leaves. When she cannot sleep, she calls Will.
He explains how they met, and she asks Will why he thinks she was dating Ace; he guesses she liked being seen with a popular “jock.” He promises to gather her schoolwork so she will not get behind until she is able to return to school. Before she returns to school, Naomi wants to be sure she can still drive; her attempt is disastrous and she is frustrated. The thought of going back to school is terrifying to her. She looks no different, but inside she has changed. She is sure no one will understand that.
Three weeks after the accident, Naomi is ready to return to school, but she is nervous and does not want to get out of her father’s car. Her father hands her a small package from her mother, something she is tempted just to throw away but does not. It is a pair of cool silver sunglasses. Naomi keeps them because the light hurts her eyes (a phenomenon of the accident) but also because she looks good in them.
It is a stressful day. Naomi only remembers students she was in sixth grade with, falls asleep in several classes, and eats lunch at her “regular” table with Ace but does not like the company. When she escapes to the greenhouse for a quiet moment and to get warm, Naomi meets her rescuer James, who ends up giving her his t-shirt because she is shivering. Brianna, one of Ace’s friends does not know Naomi can hear her but expresses her sympathy for Ace, being stuck with a girl who is “not all there.”
Will and Naomi go to their daily yearbook meeting, and it lasts until 7:00. Naomi is not sure what appealed to her about being on this staff. On the drive home, Naomi asks Will why they wanted to be on yearbook staff. He tells her they had lofty goals to make the book both “democratic and personal,” including all students and not just the popular ones. It is their chance to “write the story of the year.” He calls later to tell her they also liked working together, and she hears the affection and even love in his voice.
Naomi hears her father talking about her on the phone with someone; she is tired of people talking about her, and she determines to be as normal as she possibly can be. After a long and exhausting week at school, Ace takes Naomi to a party. She does not know anyone there, and Ace immediately joins a drinking game, though he does sporadically check in with her and brings her a beer. Naomi feels drunk almost immediately and calls Will to drive her home; when he does not answer, she calls her father.
After loading Naomi in his car, he is forced to introduce the woman in the front seat. Her name is Rosa Rivera, a tango dancer who, ironically, smells like roses, but all Naomi can think to say before she passes out is that her father told her he was going out with family friends and Rosa Rivera is no family friend. At home, Naomi throws up on the floor, and both Ace and Will call her; her father assures them she is okay but will be grounded for a week. Ace taps on her window again later that night, and he talks about how they began dating. Naomi is moved, but her tender feelings are dispelled when Ace asks if they will have sex again soon. She says no, but he is hopeful about Homecoming, three weeks from now. He falls asleep on her floor.
When she wakes up the next afternoon, Ace is gone and her father is cooking her eggs and explaining that he and Rosa are getting married. Naomi did not like Rosa, but her father suggests that, since she cannot remember, this might be a good time for “a new start.” The suggestion that her head trauma was somehow fortuitous for his love life is too much for Naomi and she locks herself into her father’s car. When they finally talk, Naomi relents and asks about his fiancée. It is clear that her father loves Rosa. When she talks to Will later, he confirms that she does not like the woman for usurping her mother’s place but that her father does appear to love her very much. The wedding is in June.
Naomi and her father have dinner at Rosa Rivera’s that week, and the woman is quite affectionate. She is forty-six, a year older than her husband-to-be, and she has twin daughters who are away at college. Naomi does not take to her immediately, and she gets angry when Rosa tries to offer her sympathy. She and her father argue on the way home; he tells her she is too much like him and will have to learn to let people into her life. Later, she looks at a picture of herself in a yearbook and wonders if she was really happy or just smiling because she was told to. Naomi begins to cut her hair. Each lock that falls represents getting rid of someone’s expectations of her. Her hair is short and when she sees herself she finally reconciles the person in her head with the person in the mirror. She is barely recognizable to her father, and this makes her happy—perhaps if people do not recognize her, they will not be upset when she does not recognize them.
Ace walks right by Naomi in the hallway, and Will does not recognize her, either. Will likes her new 'do; Ace does not. Alice, whose locker is near Naomi’s, says her hair is “complete genius,” like she has “nothing to hide behind anymore.” She invites Naomi to try out for the school play, which she is directing. Lunch is especially unpleasant and Naomi decides never to eat with that crowd again. Despite that, this is the most pleasant school day she has had. Naomi must submit a proposal to tell a personal story for her advanced photography workshop.
Naomi goes to the play auditions, mostly to spite the mean lunch girls. She performs what she is given and then goes to the yearbook meeting. When Will asks why she is late, she decides not to tell him about the auditions. Sunday night, Alice calls and offers her the role of Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Naomi accepts. She continues lying to Will about why she is late to the yearbook meetings twice a week. James is a film aficionado and is doing the video projections for the play, and Hamlet will be a big part of them; he drives her home and they plan to meet on Saturday afternoons. She and Ace talk on the phone and finalize plans for the Homecoming dance Saturday night. He is worried she will not have enough time to look beautiful.
After shooting all day, James takes Naomi home and casually invites her to come watch classic movies with him when he works for a class at the community college. He reveals he is not going to the dance. Ace and Naomi go to the dance with Brianna and her rude date. The freshman taking pictures of the Homecoming court for the yearbook is doing a poor job, so Naomi takes over and really enjoys herself. Brianna rides with someone else, and Ace takes Naomi to his house instead of home to hers. His parents are away, and Ace is ready for them to have sex—one year after the first time they were intimate.
But a series of events happen which make their being together impossible: he hates her hair, she hardly knows him, the dog is howling outside the door. They decide to break up, and both of them are relieved. By Tuesday, everyone in school knows about the breakup, though most of them think it is because Naomi would not sleep with Ace. She does not say anything.
Will, meanwhile, finds out about Naomi being in the play through a yearbook photographer. They do not speak about it until Will takes her home that night. She finally explains that she has been at rehearsals, not therapy sessions. He is relieved; he had been thinking she was losing interest and would soon quit the yearbook. Will calls Naomi “Chief” and tells her she used to call him “Coach.” Naomi thinks it is an apt name for him, as he is loyal, intelligent, passionate, thoughtful, and a good motivator. He tells her there are “all sorts of things” he could tell her if she ever wants to know.
The play is a success, and Naomi is quite good. At the cast party, James offers to take her home but she has a ride and she does not want to encourage him since she is not looking for a new boyfriend. He invites her to watch a movie when he works next, and she goes despite her resolve. Afterward, she finds herself telling him about her mother and her parents’ divorce, and James starts to tell her about his brother, but stops abruptly. He takes her home, and when she gives him back the shirt he loaned her, they kiss. Her father knocks on the door and James leaves; her father assumes Naomi knows what she is doing with this older boy.
They talk about the upcoming wedding. It will be a small family gathering, and Rosa Rivera wants her to be a bridesmaid along with her two daughters. They begin a battle of words, but Naomi decides she will concentrate only on what is now, so she agrees to the idea. Will calls and they argue; James calls and they plan a date for Saturday, her seventeenth birthday. Each year her father gives her a book appropriate to her life at the time; this year he gives her a blank journal, telling her to write about her life. Naomi is offended—giving a blank book to an amnesiac is in “somewhat bad taste”—but she says little.
When James arrives, Naomi notices that Will has left a wrapped CD on her porch: “Songs for a Teenage Amnesiac, Vol. II: The Motion Picture Soundtrack.” She slips it in her purse and James and she go to dinner and a movie. After the movie, it is snowing, so they go sledding at the school. Afterward, they are soaked and chilled, so they walk to Naomi’s house to get warm. James tells her his story. It is a tragic story: a brother who dies of cancer, an accidental overdose, more drugs, unrequited love, a suicide attempt,...
(The entire section is 6655 words.)
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