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Frenching Violet

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by Gary Marchal

Any teenager in Britain today would probably be more familiar with American customs than I am, but I'm not sure whether even a teenager would know whether American kids really have surnames like Huckabee and Trapeze. It doesn't really matter, anyway. The only reason I mention it is that it gives me an excuse for any basic misunderstandings between me and Gary Marchal's new novel, Frenching Violet. "Frenching" is what I suspected from the beginning, but some of the other slang is a little obscure. All those baseball terms, for a start. Let's take this example:

"She's a sophomore at Assumption," Buzz said, "which translated means 'assume she'll put out'."

Don't know about you, but I could sure use another translation. Still, not to worry.

This is not, I'm pleased to say, a Catcher in the Rye lookalike, though it has a 1960s setting. Teenage boys and girls were not quite as worldly-wise then as they are now, and they set their sights on something less than full-blown sex. All the same, reading about teenagers planning how they are going to achieve feats such as "making out" is not all that satisfying for an adult reader, even if that adult reader shares the same cultural history as the author. It would have been nice if I could have found a teenager to review this book, but I suspect a teenager of today would have difficulty in understanding - or admitting to understanding - the kind of situation in which Chas finds himself. Even a scene as unquestionably funny as the one where our hero, on his first attempt at proper kissing, accidentally gets his girlfriend's new silver necklace entangled in his braces (the kind that go on your teeth), is liable to be lost on our younger generation.

Bearing in mind these handicaps, what can I find to say about this novel? For a start, Gary Marchal is a good writer. By that I mean that he can draw a character, produce convincing dialogue, create a vivid description and turn a humorous phrase with the best of them. (Okay, so he hasn't quite mastered the use of the apostrophe; he's far from being alone in that.) The plot, though at times it seems to consist solely of recollections of convent school pranks, turns out to be less negligible than at first appears. Besides being an honest evaluation of growing up ("I guess in this seventh-grade year I began to admit that Mrs Grayford had been right - we did sometimes do stuff just because the guys we liked hanging out with did it"), it does at times, as a story with the Vietnam War as a backdrop would have to, lapse into something more serious.

Buy this book from Amazon

ISBN 1 4137 0445 X
Published by PublishAmerica, 2003
244pp, paperback
Retail price


Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher



Chas is a believable teenager, in that he has no ambition to speak of, no horizons further than his front door, no belief in anything beyond the mundane. His long-suffering parents spend most of their time mediating between him and his troubled elder brother, Skinny. Chas ponders only on the most basic aspects of existence, leaving everything else to the girls. He likes Judy, but he likes Violet as well. He secretly admires his unconventional friend Commie, but he admires Judy's father, missing in action, even more.

It is a funny book, though it's funnier if you're American. It also has its touching moments. It's a piece of nostalgia, though once again it's easier to appreciate if you're American. To sum up, it's a coming-of-age novel that will be best appreciated by those whose coming of age is in the distant past.