Teenage boys are squirrely, sometimes evasive creatures. In Terra Elan McVoy’s new young adult novel, “Being Friends With Boys,” boys act out; they have tantrums, write in diaries, and play songs in a moody rock band called Sad Jackal. In their midst is high school rocker Charlotte who comes of age with her bandmates, a group of guys, all of whom we quickly suspect might be interested in her romantically.
There’s Oliver, the over-the-top lead singer of Sad Jackal, who treats Charlotte like his songwriting appendage. (Charlotte says, rather brilliantly, “Sometimes I see Oliver so much, I have to close my eyes.”) Then there’s Trip, who’s been kicked out of the band and is now ditching Charlotte in favor of spending time with the wrong girlfriend. And finally Fabian, the newcomer who has all the makings of a perfect first crush -- as well as a car that, according to Charlotte, “smells like a Febreze commercial.” All this time mixing it up with guys has taught Charlotte a thing or two about gender dynamics.
“Sure, boys want to tell you all about their hookups, until they remember — by some slip in the conversation — that you’re a girl, and then they get weird and uncomfortable. It’s important to stay expressionless when it happens, even though you also have to keep doling out girl-sided advice.”
All of Charlotte’s assumptions about friendship and the opposite sex go out the window when she realizes that she’s desirable — not only as a woman but as a singer. New band members want her to perform her own lyrics, which puts her friendship with Oliver in jeopardy. And a budding relationship with a stoner named Benji threatens the dynamic between Charlotte and all of her friends who are used to being the men in her life.
McVoy’s “Boys” is a fast and fun read, mainly because the author spends the extra time making each of Charlotte’s pals a textured teen. Benji, who McVoy could have written as a throwaway character, is sardonic and quietly wise. Fabian is crush-worthy despite what Charlotte describes as his Kermit the Frog voice.
It’s too bad then that McVoy’s “Char” can come off whimpering and self-absorbed, but it’s high school and she’s in a band called Sad Jackal, so who can blame her? Mostly she’s clever and refreshing because she’s so in love with her music, because she’s so believably unapologetic about getting bad grades and having little ambition for college.
By the end of “Being Friends With Boys,” Charlotte is forced to become the main character in a story that was supposed to be about her guys. She realizes that being a good friend doesn’t have to mean being a spectator.
Matthew Quick’s latest take on adolescence, “Boy21,” also gets at the heart of what it means to be young and insecure. While “Being Friends With Boys” has all the makings of a CW series, “Boy21” reads like a poignant indie film. (Massachusetts author Quick’s first book, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” will soon be released as a drama starring Bradley Cooper and “Hunger Games” actress Jennifer Lawrence.)
In “Boy21,” our teen heroes are Finley and Russ – a.k.a Boy21. The nearly mute Finley, who also narrates, is the only white player on his high school basketball team. He’s called White Rabbit by his friends — a nod to both “8 Mile” and John Updike. Finley lives with his paraplegic grandfather and troubled dad in a neighborhood ruled by mob violence.
The action begins when Finley’s coach demands that he befriend a new kid at school, a teen who Coach says was ready to turn pro until he suffered a family tragedy. Now the would-be basketball star calls himself Boy21 and claims he’s an extraterrestrial whose parents will soon beam him up to space. Coach wants Finley to get Boy21’s head back in the game so that he can resume his playing career.
Somewhat reluctantly, Finley befriends Boy21, who follows him, breaking his silence only to spout “I am stranded here on Earth, but I will be leaving soon. Enter my domestic living pod.”
As the act gives way, a real friendship begins and the two young man wind up comforting one another. They relax on rooftops, listening to jazz, and actually talk about their feelings.
Quick is a master of capturing the rawness of adolescence and the bleakness that comes from being trapped in the wrong world, whether it’s Finley’s bad neighborhood or, in the case of Boy 21, Earth.
A more adult reader might wince at the idea of a haunted black student coming into White Rabbit’s life and spouting magic life lessons (my “Green Mile” and “Legend of Bagger Vance” alarm bells went off at first), but if you just read the novel without cynicism, it’s really just the tale of two troubled boys learning to connect and find safety.
Being Friends With Boys
Terra Elan McVoy
368 pp., $16.99
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
256 pp., $17.99