Kate Evans is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Jose State University and the author of a poetry collection, short stories, and essays, as well as this college coming-of-age novel. Warning – there are spoilers in this review concerning major plot points, although the novel is still enjoyable with the added information.
“You [could] never be too young, too rich, or too thin. Money made the world go round. Everything and everyone could be bought, it just depended on the price. Drugs propelled many people in this modern world full of new technology. Anyone could get rich so long as they were willing to pay the piper.”
Independent fashion designer and zinester Lux la Due of Girl is Poison (http://girlispoison.blogspot.com) describes eighties American culture as a decade of experimentation and self-enhancement. Hairstyles, music, fashion, technology, finances and consumer products, and social expectations for young people all went through a period of confusing, exhilarating flux. Between the sixties-era rebellion, political activism, and free love, and the nineties’ economic worries, AIDS scare, and talk of ‘family values,’ the 1980’s were a decade of trying new things and figuring oneself out.
Kate Evans’ recent novel For the May Queen follows Norma Jean, a young girl from the small California town of Auburn, through her 1981 freshman year at Sacramento State as she sorts out her own values with the help of a variety of colorful dorm-neighbors. Although the music and other cultural artifacts in this book (typewriters!) make it impossible to forget the novel takes place almost thirty years ago, the complex, conflicting messages Norma must explore and confront are still relevant nowadays. Those emotional similarities, and Evans’ unique, complex characters, are this book’s greatest strengths, and what inspired me to give this book a qualified recommendation.
Sharing a name with pre-Hollywood makeover Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean travels through a world full of music, movies, sex, drugs, friendship, parties, and sudden freedom. Norma observes various personalities and life choices through her dorm mates: her strong, go-getter sorority-girl friend Liz, who pursues what she wants in sex, romance, and fun without worrying about social norms, the funny, offbeat, classic movie buff Chuck, who keeps to himself and hates parties, and her sweet, friendly but private roommate Stacy, who takes her under her wing. Interacting with other people expands Norma’s potential life choices as she becomes exposed to different ways of life.
However, Evans suggests, through the important realizations Norma comes to when she steps out of her social circle and by the fact that she chooses to leave Sac State by the end of the year, that one also needs time alone for personal reflection to be able to chart one’s own course. One can definitely learn from others, but must ultimately choose one’s own identity and values.
Norma struggles to balance conflicting desires and ideals throughout the novel. She craves independence, wishing to journey and backpack alone in the style of her literary heroes Jack Kerouac and Isadora in Fear of Flying. She even thinks of this in feminist terms, wishing to hear more about women adventurers. However, she also wants very much to fall in love and have a serious romance with someone who values and cares for her. She stays with her older boyfriend Jack even when he’s emotionally distant and she’s sure he’s involved with other women, and also simultaneously hopes for something to start between her and Chuck.
When Norma is asked in English class to write on something she cares about and stands for, she draws a blank until Stacy suggests that she believes in true love, that one can find happiness in a healthy relationship. Norma recoils, afraid the statement will sound foolish, that she’s making guys the center of her life. But Stacy is clearly very independent and sure of herself, and definitely believes in love (although with a female partner.) This encounter suggests the possibility of a strong woman’s believing in and desiring love without necessarily surrendering her identity or the rest of her life.
Norma also enjoys the social freedom, the relaxed rules of the dorms. She admires Liz for feeling free to drink, cuss, go after guys, and not act like a ‘nice’ girl, for not fitting into old fashioned social rules expected of women. However, she looks wistfully for aspects of life that are more elegant, idealized, and romantic. Although many of the places she looks for idealized beauty (Princess Di’s televised wedding, Jack’s romantic splurges in the early days of their relationship, wanting to light candles while the group drops acid, the General Hospital wedding) do not end up matching reality, she still maintains her hopes.
Princess Diana’s marriage ended, as did Norma and Jack’s relationship. Fire safety precludes lighting candles, and the soap opera plotline involves a rape victim unrealistically embracing the perpetrator. Her English teacher singles out the essay she writes on the soap opera wedding as an example of feminist satire on society’s minimizing the impact of violence against women. While one could legitimately write such a critique, Norma’s paper more concerns her desire for something idealized and lovely in which to believe.
Do weddings represent a system of stuffy old social rules that restricted people’s behavior, or is the ceremony a representation of something meaningful and beautiful that people crave and will miss? For the May Queen suggests both conceptualizations are possible, depending on the people and the situation. On the one hand, Norma’s friend Suzy feels constrained to go ahead with marriage when she feels restless and unready simply because the ceremony’s already planned, and the marriage ends in divorce. On the other hand, Norma genuinely admires the beauty and romanticism of true love as well as ceremonies of all types, and we see Liz and Benny in a fairly functional marriage at novel’s end.
Balance among all these desires and life goals, the possibility of incorporating many different ideals simultaneously into one’s persona seems to be hinted at in For The May Queen. Walt Whitman’s continual use of the word ‘and’ jumps out at Norma – and her English professor suggests that combining and mixing together different thoughts, identities, and goals was a part of Whitman’s philosophy and lifestyle. To paraphrase, Whitman was an ‘and’ rather than an ‘either-or’ personality – and perhaps Norma and her dorm-mates can follow in his footsteps if they so choose.
Norma and her parents love to read, and her favorite books include Fear of Flying, Go Ask Alice, and On the Road. Her English class concentrates on essays in reaction to newspaper articles, assigned by a teacher wishing students to explore themselves and their own realities. Perhaps because they are removed enough from her own experience to give her space to reflect more objectively, the older books give her more insight than the newspaper as to what she can become. Adventure stories spark her interest in travel and independence, and open up a dialogue between her and her mother.
However, she lacks the words to describe her ever-changing reality, with its sexual double standards and many layers of conflicting and simultaneous social expectations. She freezes up sometimes at parties and has trouble thinking of the best way to say something, and leaves Chuck’s lover’s apartment in shock without a word. She also has trouble expressing herself in English class, feeling detached from her personal essays, as if her mind and life are miles ahead of what she can think to put down.
Her discovering the secrets of Chuck and Stacy further illustrates the power and limitations of language. There are dangers in not speaking about certain things, such as sexual orientation: Norma, Stacy, and Chuck become caught up in a colossal misunderstanding because of the secrets. But there are also problems with labeling, giving concepts words and names. Once one creates or accepts a label, one risks being judged by those who simply see the label rather than one’s whole personality, and having that label/group identity defined by others who use the term. Near the novel’s end, Norma pushes Stacy to come out and say she and Tabitha are lesbian. Having a category for her roommate would help Norma make sense of her world – but naming her orientation, telling people her secret (even when they already know, but don’t talk about it) would make Stacy’s inner life more public and take away from the private space she needs to develop her own personality independently.
Stacy does not want her life to be a matter of public discussion, especially when other opinionated people might then take control of how people perceive her and her relationship. For example, Liz had put Stacy down earlier and judged her as a blonde ditz because she was jealous and assumed anyone so beautiful and kind must not be too intelligent. (Here Kate Evans makes a point about quick judgements of people and how women and people in general let their own insecurities and jealousy get in the way of potential friendships.) So, by choosing not to publicly give words to her love for Tabitha, Stacy protects herself from others’ snap judgements and definitions of her, and gives herself the personal space she needs to think for herself.
Some parts of the college experience in For the May Queen stood out in contrast given my own past at UC Davis and present at San Jose State. Financial struggles seemed completely out of the picture, with several students coming from relatively wealthy or upper middle class families, and no one working part time, worrying about the cost of sophomore-year apartments, or even calling home for money. Everyone found careers appropriate for their personalities soon after graduation, including recovering alcoholic Dan/Goat, who supported himself as an entrepreneur. Was somewhat unreal to watch college students not live the ‘student life’ of Top Ramen, cheap entertainment, etc and have no worries about debt, financial aid, etc.
Also, there was little mention of any political/social justice/environmental activity on campus in the novel, while in my experience there were plenty of causes, groups, petitions, etc. UC Davis generally did not see anger, violence, or confrontation over social issues, but people discussed issues such as the Middle East conflict, the environment, feminism and cultural diversity, etc. Not everyone chose to become political, but people were generally aware of broader societal topics, or at least brought cookies for their sorority’s charity bake sale or participated in the Cancer Society’s all night relay race.
Not having attended college during the eighties, I am not sure to what extent those differences reflect cultural contrasts between then and now, or areas where Evans might expand her novel to broaden her portrayal of the college experience. Some social scientists have described our current generation coming of age in the 2000’s as the Millennial Generation, when young people are more relaxed and pragmatic and value tolerance, getting along with each other, and making a difference in their communities and the larger world. So perhaps some of what I mentioned would more resonate with modern college students, although I could definitely relate to Norma’s feeling ‘on the outside looking in,’ watching significant events happen, being one of the last to figure them out – but putting careful thought into what everything meant much later.
For the May Queen shows the excitement of college parties, the sense of new maturity, self-exploration, social inclusion, and developing friendships. While definitely not a moralistic or cautionary tale, we do see some of the realistic dangers of some college experiences: Norma’s frightening bad trip while on acid, the specter of STD’s, friendships and relationships broken over sexual jealousy. There are some negative consequences for women in a world where social boundaries and rules are removed, but underlying cultural assumptions about women remain: for example, the potential sexual assault scene where a group of guys push a woman’s boundaries at a party, Goat’s unwanted advances towards Norma, and Billy’s insistence that Norma is solely to blame for his possible STD and she must be the one to get tested.
The sometimes scary world of For the May Queen’s dorms reminds me of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert (who also chronicles a personal journey of self-discovery among conflicting messages on women, sex, and freedom)’s observations: “…when the patriarchic system was rightfully dismantled, it was not necessarily replaced by another form of protection…If I am truly to become an autonomous woman, then I must take over that role of being my own guardian.”
This novel chronicles Norma’s journey towards learning to protect and define herself, choose who she wants to become and what she values. It does end on a cautiously optimistic note, with Norma, still single in her late thirties, putting her love for novels and adventure to use as a travel writer. Her ‘secret hater’ prankster apologizes after twenty years, and Liz and Benny reconnect and find their way to a loving, happy, egalitarian marriage.
And, perhaps most importantly given the novel’s themes and the way the characters learn and grow from each other, the novel ends with renewed friendship among several of the former dorm-mates. Norma definitely believes in friendship – reconnecting with Liz and Benny, forgiving Goat, staying friends with Chuck after realizing romance is impossible, even trying to see good in Billy at school year’s end. And in this case, Evans lets life match up to Norma’s hopes and dreams, even after all its complex twists and turns.
Lux la Due describes the eighties as a time of experimentation – yet admits that not all of the ‘experiments’ worked. In some ways For the May Queen is an experimental novel, exploring deep sociological issues through life in a freshman ‘party dorm.’ The novel itself mostly works, with complex characterization, believable dialogue, effective pacing, and a realistic enough ending, although I would have perhaps alluded to other ever-present aspects of college life to add to the realism. Life still seems experimental for the characters at the end – Evans leaves us with some unanswered questions.
This book can be read as a fun, fast-paced read – or a look at all kinds of experiences, questions, and messages life throws at people young and old. Anyone who can resist either glamorizing or quickly judging the characters and sex/drugs in the book, could get something out of this. I’d recommend For the May Queen to mature teens/college students or anyone interested in a bit of music/movie nostalgia or a better understanding of how exhilarating, scary, wonderful, and confusing it is to be seventeen and on one’s own for the first time.
You may order For the May Queen here: http://www.amazon.com/May-Queen-Kate-Evans/dp/0982115075/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1228243654&sr=8-1