Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887
Relationships with Parents Both John and Lorraine have poor relationships with their parents, who regard them as disturbing burdens. Lorraine's father is dead, and her mother makes ends meet by working as a private-duty nurse. Mrs. Jensen's ethics and values are questionable: she steals from her patients, gets kickbacks from...
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Relationships with Parents
Both John and Lorraine have poor relationships with their parents, who regard them as disturbing burdens. Lorraine's father is dead, and her mother makes ends meet by working as a private-duty nurse. Mrs. Jensen's ethics and values are questionable: she steals from her patients, gets kickbacks from the undertakers she refers patients' families to, and urges Lorraine to stay home from school so she can clean the apartment. Lorraine feels sorry for her mother, but it's evident that these issues make her deeply uncomfortable. In addition, Mrs. Jensen projects her fears about men into Lorraine's life, hassling her about any contact she might have with boys, how dangerous boys are, and how men only have one thing in mind. These comments are not conducive to helping Lorraine develop a healthy understanding of adult relationships, so she must rely on her own instincts and on her friendship with John and Mr. Pignati to learn about what men are really like.
John's parents regard him as a disturbance that must be controlled, molded, and shaped into a carbon copy of his father, who leads an emotionally restricted and stressful life as a trader on the Coffee Exchange. They view John's energy, desire for fun, and dramatic talent as liabilities rather than gifts. Their household, like Mrs. Jensen's, is cold and not nurturing; he is constantly compared to his brother, who according to his parents is an ideal son. This coldness and comparison to an ideal he does not want to emulate foster a sense of alienation and rebellion in John, and this alienation and rebellion in turn prevent him from focusing his energy on anything productive.
John and Lorraine, like many teenagers, have little sense of the consequences of their actions, and they learn that their acts have consequences only when it's too late to change anything. At first, they tell themselves that they're just having fun— just going over to Mr. Pignati's, just having a little party, just having a good time. The party, of course, gets way out of hand, and the shock eventually leads to Mr. Pignati's death. They both realize that they were involved to some degree in his death, but differ in the amount of responsibility they're willing to take. John doesn't take full responsibility, but Lorraine does, as she says, "We murdered him."
Near the end of the book, however, John says after Mr. Pignati's death, "We had trespassed too— been where we didn't belong, and we were being punished for it. Mr. Pignati had paid with his life. But when he died something in us had died as well." This is not an explicit claiming of responsibility on John's part, but the reader senses that he isn't going to be throwing any more wild parties. As he says, "There was no one else to blame anymore.... And there was no place to hide." He has realized that his actions will have consequences, sometimes dire, and he will have to answer for them.
Life and Death
The book is filled with images and questions about life and death. Lorraine's father is dead, and her mother comes home daily with gripes and callous words about her dying patients; for example, of one old man, she says, "I wish this one would hurry up and die." She compares different funeral homes, considering which one will offer her a bigger kickback if she refers clients to them. Her callous attitude toward death is balanced by Lorraine's extreme sensitivity to suffering and death. This sensitivity leads her to feel sympathy for Mr. Pignati, who still suffers from the loss of his wife.
In Mr. Pignati's house, John and Lorraine find documents from Conchetta Pignati's funeral and read them with mingled sadness, horror, and fascination. Zindel reproduces some of these documents verbatim in the book, perhaps because most young people would be as interested in this glimpse of the adult world as Lorraine and John are.
Before Mr. Pignati's death, John has been unaffected by death, although several of his relatives have died. He didn't feel close to them, so the body in the casket looked "just like a doll." He says, "It gave me a feeling like being in Beekman's toy department to tell the truth—everything elaborately displayed." Because he was emotionally unconnected to the deceased, he is remote from the situation, viewing it in a superficial, childish manner. However, he is aware that he does this to avoid dealing with his fear of death: "Anything to get away from what was really happening." All this changes, of course, when Mr. Pignati dies and John is personally touched by the loss. He can't hide anymore, can't disconnect like he has in the past.
In addition, John, who feels dispossessed and alienated by his family, has picked up a number of self-destructive habits, such as smoking and drinking, and at one point Lorraine tells him, "You must want to die." He doesn't really have an answer for this, and near the end of the book he says, "Maybe I would rather be dead than to turn into the kind of grown-up people I knew." However, he realizes that this is not the answer either, and says with a new resolve, "Our life would be what we made of it—nothing more, nothing less."