Rainey Royal is 14, living in 1970’s New York with her bohemian jazz musician father, his best friend Gordy who tucks her in at night and gives her back rubs, and the acolytes, young musicians who follow and worship her father.
This is a coming of age novel where nothing much happens in term of action, exploring that complex world of teenage sexuality. It is all about the characters. Landis expertly portrays Rainey and her friends Leah and Tina as they navigate their way through the minefield of being teenager, made worse by an absence of role models. Rainey as a deeply troubled teenager struggling with things she only half understands, searching for a family. Her mother has left, and her father seems to care little what happens to her. Gordy, her fathers best friend, comes into her bedroom at night uninvited and gives her back rubs which often stray into areas which are not her back. Rainey is a strange combination of vulnerable victim and manipulative vixen. Extremely beautiful, men are drawn to her, a power Rainey is fully aware she possess but doesn’t know how to handle. She is struggling to understand much of what is happening to her, craving the advice of a mother who has abandoned her. She knows what Gordy is doing is wrong but does not know how to stop it. The image of a butterfly, with its fragile wings, is what springs to mind with Rainey. However she is also extremely manipulative, bullying others into doing what she wants.
The book spans a number of years from when the girls are 14 till their mid 20’s, approximately 11 years. However it is not consistent with large jumps in time, and little in fill. Some may find this disconcerting, but it didn’t bother me. The majority of the book follows Rainey until the final quarter which seems to shift the focus from Rainey to the other two girls, particularly Leah. This change in focus bothered me. It makes no sense. Rainey is the title character, the rest of the book focuses on her so why switch the focus. There are also episodes in this section which seem to lead no where. The one that springs to mind involves Leah and a strip club. It happens, hits at something terrible but then is never mentioned again. I had to question its inclusion. This is Landis’s debut novel, and my sense is that she just lost her way a bit towards the end.
Overall I enjoyed it, and the charaterisation excellent. Landis’s creates realistic characters struggling with general joy that is being a teenager, trying to understand things they aren’t mature enough to handle. It has its flaws but as a debut is promising of what we can expect from Landis in the future.