If there were a single word to describe "It's Not What You Expect," it might be "modest." But "modest" only in the very best sense of that word: restrained, unpretentious, calm, clear, unconfused. In the young adult genre, this is a rare set of attributes. Norma Klein, author of "Mom, the Wolf Man and Me," is not only singularly adept at delineating fine female characters but knows she shouldn't impose Categorical Imperatives on her young readers. Indeed her novels reveal that life is a mystery and a pretty good one, at that. (p. 8)
To salvage what portends to be an emotionally tense summer, Carla and her twin brother Oliver (a food maven) and her 18-year-old brother Ralph and several other young friends start a restaurant, and their project succeeds. Moreover, through some trip-mechanism of fate, in mentioning Ralph's girlfriend's abortion to her mother, Carla discovers that her mother had not only had a love affair (and abortion) prior to meeting Carla's father, but that the young man's tragic death had left deep—unspeakably deep—scars. This revelation, coming from a woman at a time when things seem to have hit rock-bottom, makes Carla feel grown-up, priviledged to be female and closer to the woman whom she'd previously regarded as a maternal anomaly. When the marital crisis is over, Carla sees her parents as individuals with experiences and problems unconnected to the family. With her father's return, things aren't quite the same. However, as Oliver sagaciously observes, "They never were that way to begin with."
Through a natural ("modest") blend of comedy and mellowed irony, the story comes across without much fuss. If Carla and Oliver with all their classical music and Gourmet magazine hang-ups seem a bit middle-aged, well, that's the way kids are at 14. What many writers (not Norma Klein!) have forgotten is that while kids at this age may be quite knowledgeable in a factual sense, their sympathies are misered for themselves. It's only years of experience—vicarious and direct—that weld one's emotional response to the details of another person's life. In the words of Bob Dylan, "Ah, but I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." (pp. 8, 10)
Carolyn Balducci, "Children and Adults, Trouble and Fun: 'It's Not What You Expect'," in The New York Times Book Review, June 3, 1973, pp. 8, 10.