Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838

Maggie Tobin is a plump, somewhat unattractive girl with little self-confidence, particularly in relationships with boys. Her best friend, Liz Carstensen, represents all that Maggie would like to be: attractive, articulate, and confident. But Liz is afraid of and disgusted by her stepfather and has no rapport with her mother,...

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Maggie Tobin is a plump, somewhat unattractive girl with little self-confidence, particularly in relationships with boys. Her best friend, Liz Carstensen, represents all that Maggie would like to be: attractive, articulate, and confident. But Liz is afraid of and disgusted by her stepfather and has no rapport with her mother, who has submerged her own personality in order to live in peace with her husband. Liz's mother constantly harasses her about dating the right kind of boy, while her stepfather barrages her with a daunting stream of verbal abuse. His excessive concern with Liz's sexual activity arouses suspicion of his own sexual interest in her. Liz's boyfriend, Sean Collins, must also weather parental disapproval. Sean's father is a macho male stereotype who cannot understand a son who prefers creative writing to football. Sean's alienation from his father extends to his relationship with society in general. He sees no good in anyone but Liz, and at various times in the past he has seriously contemplated suicide, even calculating how fast his head would fly off if he shot himself. Sean's buddy Dennis Holowitz is selfconscious, shy, and acutely embarrassed about his personal appearance. In Maggie's words, he is somewhat "weird-looking ... like an undernourished zucchini." Dennis also experiences a typical inability to communicate with his parents.

All four teenagers mature sexually and emotionally during their senior year. Maggie and Dennis become a couple, first because Liz and Sean push them into dating, but eventually because they truly like each other. Maggie loses weight, learns to control her wispy hair so that it no longer looks like "thin fungus," and begins to think of herself as a normal human being. Dennis's body begins to fill out, and he learns to minimize his ungainly height so that he looks less like a human erector set. His friendship with Maggie encourages his self-confidence. Unfortunately for Dennis and Maggie, their growing relationship ends abruptly because of complications in the more intense relationship between Sean and Liz.

Zindel explores the consequences of premarital sex through Liz and Sean's relationship. When the novel begins, Liz is already fending off Sean's hands and his assertion that sex is natural because "we love each other, don't we?" Liz's unwillingness to have intercourse temporarily ends their relationship. Parental difficulties further estrange the couple: Liz's mother praises her for realizing that Sean is not good enough for her, while Sean's father intercepts Liz's letter of apology. Seeking to make Sean jealous, Liz deliberately throws herself at the good-looking Rod, who once deserted a girl who was pregnant with his child. Maggie's timely intercession with Sean, Sean's rescue of Liz when Rod nearly rapes her, and Liz's anger with her stepfather's unwarranted accusation of sexual promiscuity lead Liz and Sean to a physical expression of their love.

Two months before graduation Liz becomes pregnant. When Liz first tells Sean, he is shocked, but says that he loves her and is willing to accept his responsibility. All too soon, however, Sean is racked by second thoughts, for he realizes that marriage will ruin his chances for college and a career. Approaching his father under the pretext of inquiring for a friend, Sean receives the advice that he does not, and yet does, want to hear: abortion. Liz cannot confide in her parents any more than Sean can talk honestly with his father, so she goes through with an illegal abortion, arranged for her by the rejected but cynically amused Rod. Maggie breaks an important date with Dennis to be with Liz, and Dennis, who is unaware of the problem, is left feeling ugly, hurt, and unwanted.

All four suffer from the effects of the abortion. When Maggie discovers that Liz is hemorrhaging, she breaks her vow of silence and tells Liz's parents about the abortion. Liz, who would rather die than have her stepfather know, feels that Maggie has betrayed her trust. Thus, in one night, Maggie loses her best friend and her boyfriend. Although Maggie and Dennis finally talk at their graduation, their relationship has changed, and Maggie is left with the realization that maturation involves looking back and seeing former selves as naive or silly. Maggie and Dennis have matured, and their year together has been a part of this process, but their lives will now go in different directions. Sean also graduates, but as Maggie watches him accept his diploma, she sees that the abortion has scarred his life, that he will always remember Liz and his unborn child, and that he will never be able to run away from his past.

Although Zindel stresses that both sexes pay a price for entering into sexual relationships before they are ready, he realistically portrays Liz as bearing the brunt of the consequences. Liz is not at graduation; she is sunk into obscurity with her ineffectual mother and obscene stepfather, paying an enormous price for a mistake she and Sean both made. Both Liz and Sean suffer a loss of personal identity by playing roles created for them by their parents.

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