Saturday, April 30, 2005 (Page D8)
--by Wendy Banks
When shy, virginal Alice tells her friend Walker about the crush she has on
a guy in her children's lit class, he advises her to get some sexy
underwear. So Alice sits down in her tiny dorm room and cuts the bows off
the 10 pairs of cotton panties that her mom bought her in bulk. It's funny
because it's true. For anyone who was ever a raw, vulnerable, clueless
teenager, it's even hilarious. Golda Fried has a knack for capturing the
awkwardness of youth, and Nellcott is My Darling is full of painfully
accurate scenes like this.
Set in the same early nineties, student-swarmed Montreal as Fried's 1998
short-story collection, Darkness then a Blown Kiss, Nellcott chronicles
Alice's freshman year at McGill. She's overwhelmed by her own inexperience;
everything she does -- laundry, smoking, watching grown-up movies, shopping
for herself -- is brand new. "She felt like she was wearing diapers," Fried
writes. "She felt like a baby bird cracking through the egg." She's talking
about Alice's first rock concert in high school, but it could apply to any
scene in the book.
Everyone is more sophisticated than Alice. She rooms next door to Allegra,
a fascinating artist who wears Raspberry Bruise lipstick and takes Alice
shopping at Value Village. Rally, the events co-ordinator at the film club
Alice joins, is sexually experienced and knows how to make her own macaroni
salad, "like it was nothing."
Only Bethany, Alice's friend from home, is more naive, but she's almost too
uncool to count: "Bethany and her friends were these girls who taped TV
shows and had giggly conversations, hands over their mouths." They
contemplate spring-break vacations in Cancun; so much for them. Alice's
parents are no help at all, grilling her on boyfriends and urging her to
study; while Alice frets about upsetting them, they replace her with a dog.
So Alice is left to figure things out on her own. Her unbearable innocence
and desire for an identity are bound up in an angsty mass with her
burdensome virginity. When she meets Nellcott, an eyeliner-wearing Goth boy
with a sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll reputation, her confusion only
They fall into a complicated relationship that pivots on her sexual
naiveté. He's smitten, dramatic, willing to wait; she's got reservations
that have partly to do with timidity, and partly to do with Nellcott. Fried
has a penchant for flashy similes: Sometimes ("she felt like a little
teacup full of fear") they slip dangerously close to preciousness, but in
the charged scenes with Nellcott, they're a natural vehicle for Alice's
sense of drama. She stays over at his place: "When his eyes were shut, his
black eyelashes looked like stitches shutting his eyes forever."
The story speeds airily along in a series of sketches of dorm rooms,
diners, film nights and parties in Plateau apartments. Fried binds us to
Alice's point of view; we only see what Alice notices, and, with her drive
to feed her fledgling identity, her wide-eyed attention is permanently
fixed on the surfaces of things. She studiously notes fashion, mannerisms,
décor, all accompanied by quick evaluations: Should Alice adopt them, or
does she disapprove?
Obsessed with movies, she sees the city around her as a kind of set; in
Chinatown, she notices a battered phone booth and imagines making a
distressing phone call to her parents from it, then wishes that Chinese
take-out came in white cardboard boxes with wire handles, as it does in
Alice's movie-set view of the world extends to her friends. Allegra's room
is "really a wonderland, complete with fairy dust in pill bottles and
feathers and notes in jars." Her friend Cricket is "extremely loud . . .
[and] wore skirts that rustled when she sped down the hall or rugby outfits
with Christmas colours and stripes." Their inner lives are as much a
mystery to us as they are to Alice, and for the most part, that's fine.
It's her story; and if Alice doesn't care, why should we?
Occasionally, though, it's perplexing; you get so accustomed to the
wide-eyed influx of sensory details that when an emotion crops up -- when,
for instance, Alice bursts into tears in a restaurant with her parents --
it's slightly jarring.
But the upside of Alice's minute focus on her own developing opinions and
preferences is that it makes for a sensitive, sensual, funny and accurate
map of the rocky and mystifying territory between childhood and maturity.
Formerly an awkward teenager, Wendy Banks is now a writer living in Toronto.
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