Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Boy Toy: Perspective makes all the difference

Boy Toy, by Barry Lyga, was recommended to me by Helene Dunbar, who greatly admired the writing (I believe she said you could "bounce a quarter off" it, which sounds just about right) and wanted to know what I thought about the book from a psychological perspective. Once again, thank you, Helene, for recommending it!

Boy Toy is the story of eighteen-year-old Josh Mendel, who has spent the last five years bearing the weight of an open secret. When he was twelve--in seventh grade--he was sexually involved with his social studies teacher, Evelyn Sherman.

Yep.

Helene was right; this book is worth reading for the writing, for the intricate structure of the paragraphs and chapters that drags you back and forth between past and present, sometimes within a single sentence. It's worth reading if you want to see how to give the reader a visceral and jarring experience right along with a character. It's also worth reading for Josh, who is utterly fascinating in all his quirks and interests, and for Rachel, the girl who is closely tied to the crests and troughs of his journey.

It's also worth reading if you want to understand how a few things work. The first thing this book shows in harrowing detail is how a pedophile grooms a child. If you don't know how this happens, maybe you should. Basically, it's pretty common for a pedophile to do a bunch of stuff that lowers the child's guard and makes it more likely the kid will go along with what's happening without telling anyone. Sharing interests. Sharing secrets. Nonsexual touch first, then ... you get it, I'm sure.

As an adult, I recognized each of these steps as Eve lured Josh in. But because it's told from Josh's perspective, you see that he ... doesn't. He is a boy when all this happens. And his world is quite small. I see this all the time in my work with parents as I try to help them understand why a child would behave in a certain way.

When you reach adulthood, it's really easy to forget the perspective of your child self.

That's the second thing Barry Lyga shows brilliantly--the younger Josh's perspective. As an adult, you have a sense of how vast the world is, and your place in it. You have a sense of others' motives, of what they might want from you, that they might not mean what they say. But kids don't know that stuff, and they also don't know they don't know. That makes it disturbingly easy to manipulate them. For Josh, he only knows what he sees. The dark workings of Eve's mind? They don't exist for him. Despite being highly intelligent, the twelve-year-old Josh still has the perspective of a boy, even as his body sexually matures.

Which brings me to the third thing this book depicts with amazing psychological accuracy and heartbreaking detail: how some adults have difficulty understanding sexual abuse against boys when the acts appear to be consensual. The choices Mr. Lyga makes with regard to Josh's age and his physical and intellectual maturity, as well as allowing the reader to see things through Josh's eyes, only heighten that feeling of ambiguity--which is exactly what needs to happen in order to understand how Josh evolves throughout the book.

Although sexual victimization in girls is well-studied, the same is not true for boys. One review of over a hundred studies concluded that this phenomenon is common, underreported, and undertreated. What we know about sexual abuse is that is accounts for a lot of symptoms in kids that have been victims, but there's not ONE behavior that stands out. In other words, there's no single, simple result of being sexually abused.

And yes, that's related to the fourth thing I loved about this book--Josh's unique journey. At the beginning of the book, he's pretty much locked himself in a psychological box, with occasional explosions to relieve the pressure. How he emerges is so satisfying in its complexity (albeit truly heartbreaking at times) that I wouldn't dare spoil it for you. You need to read it for yourself. There's actually a quote I really wanted to share, because it might be my favorite in any book ... ever ... but I won't, because I think it gives too much away (if you've read the book and want to know what it is, email me and I'll tell you!).

Have you read Boy Toy? What did you think? Have you read other books that showed the limited perspective of a young person without patronizing or simplifying? What made it work? Ever read something where it didn't work, and if so, can you put your finger on why it failed?

And because it's Wednesday and the beginning of the month, there's a new question for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog: "If you’re querying now, or have in the past, how do you develop patience to wait for responses?" Laura's posted her answer this week right here.

20 comments:

  1. Wow, great review and it sounds like a great book, but a tough one for me to want read. Perhaps it's my age, but I don't want to read anymore sad emotional journeys. I want to be entertained by something I've not experienced before. However, with that said, I'm reading 'lit' by Mary Karr, and while I don't like her story, I LOVE her writing...so I'll keep reading to better hone my craft.

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  2. Thank you for this. :) Adding that book to my reading pile ASAP.

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  3. This sounds a little like Stick, in the emotion, not necessarily the details. I've long admired Barry, but have actually never read his novels. I need to get on that.

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  4. wow this sounds like a really interesting and original read. Thanks for introducing us to 'boy toy'- I would have never heard of it.

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  5. Glad you liked it Sarah. I found your take on it fascinating.

    Would definitely love to know which quote you loved. :-)

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  6. This sounds interesting though not a light book to be enjoyed.

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  7. Child perspective vs adult perspective are why people blame themselves for what happened to them as a child. It sounds like the author really knows what they are writing about. Writing so tight you can bounce a quarter off it, love that analogy.

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  8. In answer to the question, I have so much to do that waiting for responses doesn't seem long at all. Plus not getting them leaves me with hope... lol.
    I'm so glad you mentioned this book. I hadn't heard of it, but it sounds like a must read. I, myself, have trouble as viewing teen boys as victims in this type of situation, so I need to read it for sure.

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  9. I'm adding this book to my growing list...As for waiting, well, I've been doing this for a while now so I don't even think about it. I just hit send and move on to the next thing I'm doing, be it revising, blogging, something new, or another query. I guess I've learned that responses aren't necessarily guaranteed and they'll arrive when they arrive - sometimes out of the blue like a request I once got after over a year!

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  10. I had not heard of this book, but I will definitely have to take a look at it. As long as it's not one of those "dark" YA books ... (Okay, maybe I ought not go there.)

    As for querying, while I was waiting for responses, I second-guessed my query, agonized over it, fiddled with it, and researched agents for the next batch, in case the current batch went nowhere. At least it gave me something to do. Waiting while your manuscript is on submission is worse -- because there is absolutely nothing you can do to help it. (urrghh)

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  11. You need a bookface Sarah, because I was trying to give you props on there, but it's hard when you can't @mention someone.

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  12. Wow. That sounds like an amazing book. And what a great topic that hasn't been covered enough. Maybe it will help someone who's been through something like that. I wonder... If there's art therapy, and play therapy, and music therapy... why not BOOK therapy?

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  13. This book sounds amazing, excruciating, and poignant. It would be a great study on the inner workings of an abused character. Thanks for the excellent review! I'd never even heard of it till now.

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  14. Great review! I've not heard of the book but will definitely look for it now. I'm always interested in reading books that deal with darker issues. There is so much to learn about the human psyche, be it the aggressor's or the victim's.

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  15. A wonderful review. I will have to read as a writer to see how Barry Lyga moves between present and past so effortlessly.

    Thanks for your perspective on this, Sarah. This is why your blog is a must-read.

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  16. Wow. Am adding this to my TBR. Sounds like a tough read but a book that must be read.

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  17. This is the second blog I've seen to mention this book. It looks amazing. Thanks for the in depth analysis.

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  18. This does sound like a wonderful book. I'm putting it on my wish list right now.

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  19. This sounds both fascinating and disturbing. Thanks for the information. I'll put it on my reading list.

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  20. Wow...I'm going to look up this book.

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