Saturday, February 23, 2008

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Once upon a time, I put Make Lemonade on my wish list. The premise sounded interesting, the cover was pretty, and people said good things about it - so why not? When I finally came upon a copy I was a teensy bit distressed to see that it was a novel in verse. "Why were you distressed?" you may ask. Well, I don't like poetry for one thing. I've tried to like poetry and failed...especially poetry in its "modern" sense, where like modern art, it seems to have no rules by which to abide. There's no rhyme, there's no discernible rhythm...basically poetry of late has seemed to fall into the category of fancy prose in a punctuation-less pile of overwrought emotions only understandable to its author and my 10th grade teacher who always seemed to have time to glean the last kernel of unidentifiable (and sometimes unintended) meaning from every literary work. So, given my skepticism toward poetry in general, I thought that I wouldn't like this book. I thought that the whole verse thing would be a total cop out to make a book a little shorter and a little more approachable for today's lazy young adult reader. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Make Lemonade is narrated by 14-year-old LaVaughn, child of a single mother, who is bent on getting the grades and earning the money necessary to earn her escape from her rough neighborhood by going to college.

The word COLLEGE is in my house,
and you have to walk around it in the rooms
like furniture.

Her mother tells her that she will have to earn money for college herself, so when she sees a neglected ad for a babysitting job on a school bulletin board, she makes a call and meets Jolly. Jolly's is the life that LaVaughn is most seeking to avoid. Jolly is the teenage mother of two children, Jeremy and Jilly, by two different absent fathers. She never finished high school, so she struggles to make ends meet working for minimum wage at her "good" factory job. Jolly's apartment is a mess, and so is her life. At 17, she has two kids to take care of and absolutely no one to help her and no one to tell her the things she needs to know about parenting, about working, about life. Soon, LaVaughn finds herself more caught up in Jolly's life and problems than she ever could have imagined. When Jolly loses her job, LaVaughn has to decide whether to stick around uncompensated and help Jolly make lemonade out of the many lemons in her life. As it turns out, each character has much to teach the other.

"I'm canned," Jolly says, and she translates immediately,
And I suddenly see, in piles,
all the food in the store nobody's gonna buy
for Jeremy and Jilly,
how Jilly has to be toilet trained right now
because of no more diapers,
not even soap to wash anything
and it's still so filthy around here,
and you have to have money to buy toilet paper, even.

Wolff's writing is incredible, and the verse format allows her the latitude to fit enormous feelings into tiny sentences. She never just tells us, she shows us, making us feel feel right along with the characters. The structure allows her to put emphasis on key moments and words and even to create those moments that are so short but seem so long as they're happening. Wolff's words admirably rise to the poetic occasion, being both lyrical and heart-wrenching in their simplicity. LaVaughn's narration is pitch perfect as she struggles to understand how alone Jolly is and how many things she's never been taught because she's simply never had anyone to teach her. At one point, Jolly tries to tell LaVaughn how alone she feels, like an astronaut in space sent out to repair something whose connection to the space ship is severed, leaving him floating in space.

Then she starts again. "See, even if they wanted
to send somebody after him, they wouldn't know
where to look.
He ain't connected. See?

"And even if he wanted to fall down, he couldn't.
Ain't any gravity to do it.

"He's just out there.

"Nobody knows where.

"See how alone he is?"
Jolly stands in the middle of the floor
and her arms are out like floating away.

At the same time, LaVaughn is forced to come to terms with some of the lemons in her own life, such as the long-past death of her father, an innocent victim of a gang fight. One of my favorite passages shows how LaVaughn's mother seemed to become both parents to her after her father's death...

What my Mom did is like a foggy photograph,
like one you might think you dreamed.
I don't even remember her at first.
At first when it happened.
She got huge. Like she multiplied.
I never figured it out, but she was big.

The book has a beautiful resolution, too, not just telling but showing just how both characters with each other's help have started "making lemonade."

This is a short, small book that packs a huge punch (and one that I think I've definitely failed to capture with my review), and there are so many more spectacular passages that I could just as well have shared as the ones I did choose (which I'm hoping will entice you to read this book despite what feels like an underwhelming review). This book, even at this early date, might be the surprise hit of 2008. I've also heard that it is the first of a trilogy, and I'm definitely looking forward to reading the other two books.


  1. Wow, looks like a great book. I may pick up a copy at the library. Peace.

  2. Wow. Thanks for the review! Even if your claim to not doing the book justice is true, you definitely sold me.