Dryland, by Sara Jaffe, was a book I couldn’t help but write in. If you’ve ever seen the way I handle books, you know that’s a statement. My fiancée accuses me of treating them like they’re not meant to be read, accuses me of reading with white gloves on; I will admit only to a certain reverance that has only recently ceded to a desire to mark and chronicle. This book helped—I found myself so full of thoughts that they needed to be put down somewhere. It speaks to Jaffe’s mastery of character: she knows her protagonist, Julie Winter, from her toenails to her split ends. And she is a teenager in 1992—those split ends, though never mentioned, are inevitable.
Julie is less preoccupied with the complicated socio-political landscape of America and, more specifically, Portland in the 90’s and much more concerned about what friendship means as she begins to grow in different directions than her best friend, Erika; about what family means when her brother, a former Olympic-hopeful swimmer living in Berlin, avoids speaking to her and her parents for months on days on months; and about small personal desires when Alexis, one of the best female swimmers on the high school swim team, tries to recruit her (though Julie hasn’t really ever tried swimming competitively). It is my job to convince you to read this book. I will do so gladly. This quiet coming of age tale is clad in flannel on the outside; on the inside, it’s draped in gorgeous prose.
One of the most interesting parts of Dryland is Julie’s herculean task of dropping into a body. In the beginning, a disconnect: “Something in me felt off, and I checked my backpack to make sure the zippers were closed. I touched my wallet in my front pocket. Maybe I was hungry.” By the end, you get the sense that Julie is more aware of how long her arms and legs are. And that works as a metaphor emotionally as well. I am of the opinion that bodies, and how we grow or settle into them, is the hardest thing to capture about the experience of a teenage girl. It’s something adult writers, especially those who have gone through puberty as a teenage girl, would often best like to forget. Many books written about teenagers skip it altogether, or lay this icing on in heavy clumps full of dramatic dysphoria and disordered dysmorphia. I am not saying those sorts of narratives are unimportant, not at all; but I am saying it’s nice to see the more subtle discomfort that is much harder to articulate, to spot even. That staring in the mirror and trying to decide why you feel weird, or if you feel weird. Perennial awkwardness. Figuring out what bodies want and how they want it, how it’s different from other bodies. All that work is done here, and in such clean language that it made me nostalgic for one of the toughest parts of growing up: “I hardly ever looked at my body in the mirror. One day I didn’t have boobs and the next here thy went. Or there they came.”
Jaffe nails the teenage queer experience in other ways, too. The frenetic buzzing of learning how to be: “There was something—a clipped, vein-pumping energy—that was ordering me up to my room to be alone with it.” Figuring out crushes: “If I ran all the way to Alexis’s house I could pretend it was just something I did, in the night, for training, whatever, this is your house?” And a budding lesbian’s opinion on boys: “He had on the wool cap, and his face was a face…Looking at Kyle and trying to guage his hotness, I felt as if I had never had a feeling in my body in my life.” That last aspect of this character is something I found particularly relatable; many of you might feel the same. The pearl-like structure (short, contained segments with no chapter breaks), acceptable self-absorbtion on the road to self discovery and spare, ironic language makes the world of teenage girls seem isolated, sarcastic and slightly magical. That’s exactly the way I remember it.
My only criticism of this book isn’t truly a criticism of it at all, rather of the state of queer protagonists in general. I feel like I, personally, see a lot of coming of age stories about my people. I don’t see a ton else. There is an argument to be made for this: that all people are constantly coming of age, queer or not. But part of me wonders when my people will be allowed to grow up, for real, in their stories. Will we always be in the middle of the uncomfortable, pubescent quest toward adulthood? The inching progress toward self-awareness that Julie makes over the course of Sara Jaffe’s Dryland gives me hope that some day, Julie Winters—or the other queer protagonists of the world—will come to a point in their whispered, private revelations that signals adulthood. Where or when or how, I certainly couldn’t tell you.
Dryland is published by Tin House and you should definitely purchase a copy of the book (from Amazon, Indiebound or at your local independent bookstore) and read it in two days at the expense of your schoolwork and jobs like I did.