by Jeff McConaghy
This Young Girl Passing
This Young Girl Passing
The year is 1976. Vietnam is stagnating, the kids are smoking homegrown, and high school French teacher Bill Richardson keeps a long-legged junior named Sarah after class to discuss her failing grade. He offers to drive her home, instead taking her to a secluded lake where they begin an illicit relationship that lasts a year and a half. Most nights they have sex on the daybed in Bill’s home office, his wife Mary zonked on sleeping pills upstairs. Rumor is that Sarah, who was raped at 14 at her cousin’s wedding, whose unemployed father beats her until he breaks bones, isn’t the first one.
The year is 1996. Hale-Bopp is flying by, taking or leaving the souls of the Heaven’s Gate cult, and Bill is going gray at the same job, in the same passionless marriage. Sarah is a Prozac-taking mother of a teenage daughter, cheating on her husband with her dentist boss. They run into each other near the Riverside Mall, get a drink, and start another affair, meeting in the seedy motels of Utica for sex and conversation.
Donald Breckenridge’s short but powerful third novel is something of a moral litmus test—an unorthodox love story that challenges the reader to look beyond the facts. Written in non-linear episodes, with a distinctive style that mixes dialogue and exposition in a challenging but often beautiful way, Breckenridge draws us deep into a bond that spans adult- and childhood. In negotiating this fraught terrain, perhaps his greatest feat is that he doesn’t take sides. The prose is scrupulously objective, drawing us in not with Humbert Humbert-style wooing, but rather a sort of apologia via description. An accumulation of fine detail complicating and obscuring in delightful and surprising ways.
Breckenridge found the inspiration for This Young Girl Passing in a March 2000 article in the New York Times about a teacher in upstate New York dismissed for having a relationship with a student 20 years prior. The relationship came to light when the couple rekindled their affair. Breckenridge adopts the basic facts, but it’s interesting to note what he omits. Though brief, the article mentions that the teacher fondled the student in class—a salacious detail that would have been featured in a typical ripped-from-the-headlines book, but which is noticeably absent here. Absent too, are any real sex scenes, many sections fading in just after the act, catching the couple as they try, valiantly if unsuccessfully, to communicate.
We feel the tragedy of the situation most during these conversations. Bill endlessly asking for honesty while himself living a lie. Sarah giving herself again and again, in as many ways as she can, to a man who is unwilling to leave even a childless, unhappy marriage. Though it’s clear in these pages that Bill is at least a bit of an ass, we begin to feel the real criminal is the finiteness of experience—the very fact that as time passes certain unhappy men will encounter certain unhappy girls. Fault, even volition, hardly enters into it. The reader can be forgiven if, during these long, winding exchanges—surely influenced by Breckenridge’s theater background, complete with stage cues—they root for this couple to some extent. If only for some brief happiness. As soon as their love begins to become idealized, however, Bill asks a particularly pertinent question: “If we had married do you think we would still be happy?”
This Young Girl Passing is a slim work that asks big questions. Confounding expectations at every turn, Breckenridge challenges the reader to engage an unconventional love story on its own terms, making us almost wish our lives were this beautifully fucked up.