Back on the terrace, the man in the Adirondack chair presided over the scene, his eyes remaining within the ropes that boxed in this orbit of sand and stretched a hundred yards into the ocean, toward white barrels that marked the civilized limit, the parameters of the all-seeing club, beyond which, it was silently agreed, the world became unruly.
People need to belong to groups – families, tribes, communities. Maslow put “belonging” below “self-esteem” on his famous pyramid, indicating we can’t develop self-esteem, no matter what our accomplishments, unless we belong. A necessary element of the need to belong is the need to exclude, to keep out those who don’t belong. But it isn’t all that simple: the need to belong competes with a need to be distinct, an individual. It’s even more specific than that, according to Dr. Russell Spears of Cardiff University: people want to be part of a majority when it comes to their opinions, but part of a minority when it comes to their tastes.
All that, and adolescence, too.
I was a reluctant reader at the beginning of this story. I’m not even sure why; I was pretty sure this story about Beckett, a teenage girl at a Hamptons beach club with her parents wasn’t going to be a tribute (ironically, given the publication) to the Real Housewives of the Hamptons – and indeed, it wasn’t. But it seemed a little too glib, a little too “written.” Examples: Beckett’s thoughts when friend Natalie shows her a condom: “…a Trojan, Beckett noticed, which brought to mind a horse loaded with 19-year-old boys.” And there’s her evaluation of another friend: “Clio, poor thing, lived in Westchester and had none of the native New York City smarts the rest of the girls claimed by way of zip code.” Clio is also fond of classifying things as toxic: “Everything that summer was toxic.” Then the Lyntons, her parents’ lunch partners, give her some vacation advice: “In five years, Cambodia will be totally spoiled. It almost already is. Go to Cambodia and Vietnam before they’re wrecked.”
All of this is really good, sharply honed satire. A little too good, maybe, for an intelligent but unsure fourteen-year-old? In his Page-Turner interview Gilbert says he started with the man on the terrace, a figure he remembered from his own childhood, but he decided to make it a story about a teenager: “The beautiful part about adolescence is that you can swing between satire and earnestness, sweetness and nastiness, without jeopardizing the overall tone.” I was dubious – I think I wanted the narrator more separated from the POV character – but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. That turned out to be a good move.
Beckett’s parents are probably unaware they’re modeling adult behavior for her when they gossip cruelly about acquaintances walking by and take only-half-joking swipes at each other, such as Mom hazing Dad about calling her “Toots” (“Who are you – Frank Sinatra?”):
Her parents often had this kind of exchange in public. It was a trick of their marriage that baffled Beckett. Day after day, they sawed each other in half, yet they always managed to emerge whole at the end of the evening, nineteen years of semi-miraculous ta-dah. What was the illusion, Becket wondered, the love or the hate?
They’re also probably unaware of the effect of their snide remarks towards Beckett herself: Mom compares her study of Latin to “being fluent in Braille,” and she developed her conviction that a teenage girl eating ice cream alone in public was “a pitiful sight” from somewhere.
So just go home and read “Middlemarch”….Nowhere in “Middlemarch” was there a chapter on blow jobs, which, in this living Long Island novel, was the giddy subject of many a clueless conversation. “Middlemarch” was a breeze compared with the whys of what boys want in their sweaty little man dreams.
Beckett enjoys a conversation with the man on the terrace (“our homeland security,” her father calls him) though tinged with the omnipresent anxiety of adolescence. But he appreciates the Latin she quotes and translates, a piece of a poem by Tibullus: “May I gaze upon you when my last hour has come, and, dying, may I hold you with my weakening hand.” Enter girlcrush, alongside all the insecurity of the blossoming fourteen-year-old girl dealing with her own hormones and those of every boy whose gaze, accepting or rejecting, passes over her.
She goes back to her friends – she has to, of course; whatever the restrictions, belonging is a powerful drive, especially at fourteen – to Josephine and to Clio of the wrong Zip code and to Natalie, especially Natalie:
Natalie, the prettiest of the group, the girl who, unlike the three other girls, had those cool older siblings, Natalie, who had a super-rich financier father and a writer stepmother, a funky mother and stepfather involved in the arts, Natalie, with her angular face and gazelle legs and size-B boobs that shot perky parallel lines into the sunglasses of men and women who muttered, “Here comes trouble,” in differing tones, Natalie – there must be a Natalie in every group, Beckett figured, even ugly girls must have their Natalie, a Natalie upon whom you wish a little hardship and maybe, on sleepless nights, a full-blown tragedy, a Natalie who elicits the worst in you and confirms your own petty sense of self, that goddamn bitch – leveled her privet-green gaze on Becket and said,
It isn’t until the last page that things get really interesting, until the group starts to cannibalize itself in a sort of Hamptons version of Lord of the Flies, because, well, if you’re afraid of not belonging, the best way to belong is to rearrange the group dynamic and designate someone else as the odd man out in the group, as the focus of all that not-belonging energy in a game of humiliation called “horny shark.”
Everything in the story that has gone before, all the stuff I waded through, uncertain what Gilbert was doing, if it was going to be a descriptive piece, maybe another expository chapter from a novel (and having those kinds of metaquestions, as opposed to questions about the characters and motivations and possible forthcoming actions, is never a good sign), all that was put to good use as the theme of belonging and exclusion, in marriage and in adolescence, all the sexual bewilderment of fourteen, came together sharply on that last page, in those last paragraphs, when Beckett sacrifices Clio to cement her own shaky place in the group, and, as she checks hopefully to see if the man on the terrace is watching, considers more Latin: Absens haeres non erit. “The one who is absent will not be an heir.” Or, as sometimes colloquialized: “Out of sight, out of mind.”
She was right; compared to adolescence, Middlemarch is a breeze.