Lemon, by Cordelia Strube

Purchased at Amazon.ca

So, let’s consider some aspects of Lemon, the teen-aged central character who narrates Cordelia Strube’s Giller Prize longlisted novel:

– She has three mothers, or none, depending on how you look at it. She’s never met her biological mother. Number two, Zippy, who did adopt her when married to Lemon’s father later had her own problems and wanted the two of them to jump off the apartment balcony holding hands — Lemon was on a persecuted-Jewish-girl-novel kick at the time and wanted no part of the phoney drama. Number three, the current one, is Drew, a school principal now in serious agoraphobia due to being stabbed in the back by a student. Lemon’s father Damian is only occasionally in the picture now as he has taken up with a new “tomato”.

– Lemon has always opted for isolation as a defence, symbolized by the way she has forsaken her christened name of Limone for Lemon. Like many children who opt for isolation, it has always involved some serious reading since libraries are friendly places for those who want to be lonely. The result is that while still in high school, she knows, appreciates and, yes, lives by Austen, Bronte, Dostoevsky, etc. — she has a pretty good knowledge of the canon. She is currently working on The Mayor of Casterbridge, bringing all of Hardy’s cheerfulness to her empty life.

– Even for the isolated, high school demands some sort of set of friends as a protective mechanism from persecution by the popular. Lemon is in a threesome — she is the rebel, Tora is the A-student who is rarely off her computer and Rossi is the one with big breasts who yearns to be on the other side. They aren’t really friends, rather they are kind of a pact of co-survivors.

– Lemon also volunteers in the children’s cancer ward at the local hospital and it is here where she is her most social. She doesn’t get along with the staff, but she bonds with the young patients in a way that they (sometimes) appreciate — actually the problem is that she bonds too well. By definition, these are short-term relationships since her hospital “friends” either die or recover and depart into the real world.

Strube tells her story in the first person from Lemon’s point of view — making her an advanced reader allows for advanced vocabulary and understanding, but she is still a 16-year-old. This exchange with the school guidance counsellor (not surprisingly, Lemon is one of those students who the system says is not realizing their “potential”) is reasonably typical of the narrative:

‘These days,’ I continue so she can get it all down, ‘unless you’re a super-brain or gorgeous, you’re going to end up in some bottom-feeder job at some corporation that’s going to restructure every time you take a crap. If you make it through the first cuts, you might as well chain yourself to your cubicle because they’re going to want your soul.’

That’s why boys get into guns. It’s easy and you can scare people who wouldn’t give you a job interview if you offered to blow them. Well, maybe if you offered to blow them.

‘There’s no room out there,’ I say. ‘It’s way to crowded. We need more war and pestilence.’

‘You cannot,’ Blecher says, ‘you simply cannot expect to function with such a bleak outlook.’

‘I don’t expect to function.’

‘You’ll break your mother’s heart.’

‘Which one?’

While Lemon is very fond of those bleak, sweeping generalizations, you can see that she leavens them with an appreciation for irony — author Strube is quite good at creating balance between those poles. One of my favorite parts of the book is an extended set piece. Two of Lemon’s teachers have decided that she can meet course requirements for both (and harness her creative rebel streak) by writing a play. Truly Loved is the story of a woman who is anything but that, but as Lemon gets into the process she uses the project as a vehicle to capture (and expand) some observations of what is happening around her.

Indeed, that aspect of the project soon takes over. Word that Lemon is writing a play which will be produced with fellow students in the cast (a rather foolish promise from the drama teacher) spreads in the school and, as unpopular as the playwright is in the student hierarchy, even the most popular want a part. Despite the fact that the play is only half-finished, Lemon holds “auditions” in her basement where she submits the popular to acting out demeaning parts, climaxing by having the two school clique leaders strip and dry hump, doggy-style.

Alas, that having accomplished her purpose, Lemon abandons the play — I was rather sorry when the narrative stream left the book.

Okay, this is a coming-of-age novel which invites comparison with others, so let me try a triangulation. The Catcher in the Rye is the necessary starting point. Holden and Lemon are both well-read, rebellious and negative observers of the world, offsetting that with a sense of sardonic irony. Both are also revolting against the “phoniness” that surrounds them, although Strube wisely never uses that word in the book. Alas, this novel has neither the strength nor familiarity of place and circumstance that Salinger’s has, so Lemon doesn’t rise up to the coming-of-age gold standard.

In many ways, a better comparison is E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, the story of a young woman who creates havoc in a co-ed private school in the U.S. northeast. Like Lemon, Frankie is a devoted reader, although her inspiration is P.G. Wodehouse, not the classics. And while Lemon uses her “play” as a vehicle to humiliate the popular, Frankie wreaks her havoc by effectively taking over a secret boys society that “runs” the school. Lemon is a darker novel than Frankie, but their heroines have a lot in common.

For me, perhaps the best recent comparison is Skippy Dies, Paul Murray’s 2010 Booker-longlisted portrayal of boys growing up in an Irish Catholic high school. Although Murray’s trilogy is much more ambitious in both scope and length (600+ pages against Lemon’s 274), I thought more than once while reading this novel that a title of And Lemon Lives would have been quite appropriate in describing a pair of coming-of-age bookends. The two novels have similar central characters, equally hapless parents and school authorities and, most important, explore the “society” that is part of the adolescent experience.

The coming-of-age novel may be a bit of an acquired taste; if it is, you can count me in as an aficianado. I am grateful to the 2010 Real Giller Jury for including it on the longlist because I would have missed it otherwise (it has been out for a year); I would not have been critical of them if they had included it on the shortlist. I am sure that some of the incidents in Lemon will be popping into mind for some time to come.

(For another review that is on the positive side of neutral, check out Trevor’s thoughts at the Mookse and the Gripes.)

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5 Responses to “Lemon, by Cordelia Strube”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I was also a bit sad to see the play drift away from the narrative. By the end of the book I had mostly forgotten about it, though that is partially because the ugly things that happen to Lemon later pretty much overtook the play.

    What did you think about the “mother” theme as applied to Lemon herself? This was one thing I had the hardest time with, but everytime I tried to find a way to discount it, I realized that there was a good point to be made there, even if I found what she did highly disturbing. I’m sure that was the point — Lemon is highly disturbed, despite her detached tone. I guess Caulfield was in a mental institution, too, though.

    This book has certainly stuck with me, and I wish it had more attention.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I viewed the “mother” theme as just another one of the confusions that Lemon was facing, albeit one that unfortunately for her has dangerous implications. As with many other things, she shows some aptitude for motherhood (from the cancer ward experience) but (again like so many other things) she wants to jump directly to the result, rather than work her way there. Alas, with motherhood, that is possible — and the easily-achieved result will last for a lifetime. Which, of course, is not unlike her own history.

    I do see Lemon as more confused (maybe immature or incomplete) than disturbed. Her rebellion, detachment and negative characteristics seem to me to be defensive measures resulting from her confusion — as do the concrete judgments she makes. When you think about it, that is a fairly typical adolescent response — the way that Strube captures that is one of the strengths of the book. I’ll admit that while I didn’t really like the person that Lemon is now (and probably would actively dislike her if I met a real version), I was actively cheering for her to start finding some ways to turn her strengths into positive forces instead of defensive ones.

  3. Trevor Says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Kevin. I certainly think there is more to this book than to my bottom two choices on the shortlist.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That quote struck me as an extremely credible piece of dialogue for a 16 year old. In fact, it reminded me of similar conversations I had at that age with my school’s equivalent of a guidance counsellor. I’d forgotten all that, so full marks to Cordelia Strube there.

    I think adolescent voices are actually very hard to get right, so I am impressed by that. Unfortunately, while I share your disinterest in historical fiction I don’t share your interest in coming of age stories so despite the temptation I suspect I’ll pass. An author to keep an eye out for though possibly.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Given where you live and your life experience, I’d say read Skippy Dies before this one. And I suspect you have already decided to give that one a miss.

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