Wittlinger, Ellen. Sandpiper. Simon & Schuster, 2007. ISBN 978-1416936510 260 pp. $6.99
How do you recover your name and good reputation, whether it’s been tainted for unintentional murder or for giving blow jobs? (With that kind of perspective, casual oral sex doesn’t seem like such a big deal). 16 year-old Sandpiper struggles to make sense of the traditional double standard that nice boys have sexual feelings, but nice girls don’t. She juggles relationships of all shapes and sizes, and develops a new friendship with a mysterious boy. Even her poetry is like quicksilver, changing in tone and style to fit her many moods.
Rather than jump on the novel in verse bandwagon, Wittlinger intersperses her narrative with poem, some modeled after works of the masters (Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, T.S Eliot) and some experimenting with form and style. It’s no surprise that she turns out to be an eloquent wordsmith–vivid, pithy, and allusive.
In typical Wittlinger fashion, the teens are complex and fleshy characters, and sensitive issues are handled with humor and grace. A mother planning an elaborate second wedding, a dad who hasn’t demonstrated affection since she developed a figure like the women he favors, and a scorned lad out for revenge combine to add dramatic tension. The point to which the drama escalates seemed a little contrived, but was effective in moving the plot to where it needed to go. All of the protagonist’s issues are tidily tied up by the end, as are supporting characters.
I haven’t read the very controversial Rainbow Party yet; oral sex figures very heavily into Sandpiper as it does in Rainbow Party. However, excellent prose, the “all talk, rather than action” approach and the character’s grappling (fumbling?) with the power, responsibility and mixed emotion that the act brings create a wholly believable plot that is less sensational and very real.