February 13, 2012

Emily For Real

by Sylvia Gunnery
Pajama Press
196 pp.
Ages 12+
Available April, 2012

Secrets can be kept hidden, or they can be shared thoughtfully or they can slip out unceremoniously.  Regardless, depending on who is keeping the secret and the focus of that secret, the impacts can be catastrophic, enlightening or inconsequential.  Emily For Real involves many such secrets, crossing three generations. 

Seventeen-year-old Emily Sinclair attempts to keep her boyfriend Brian's breakup with her a secret just until after her family has dealt with the funeral of her grandfather, Karl Sinclair.  But, Cynthia Maxwell, an older and mysterious visitor to the funeral reception, gets Emily curious about her Granddad, particularly as he was not a warm, affectionate man.  In fact, Emily's mom, Winnie, clearly did not respect her father-in-law, although his twin children, Emily's dad, Gerry, and her Aunt Emma, have irresolute sentiments about him.  Although dementia prevents Meredith, the caring woman who Granddad married within a year of his first wife's death, from offering clarification, additional probing by Emily and others brings new information about the accidental death of Gerry's and Em's mother.

With Granddad's secret revealed only after his death, the family is left to find their own ways to deal with it: ignore it, pursue it, embrace it, accept it.  Whether by cowardice, shame or self-righteousness, he left the family with more questions than answers.

Meanwhile, Emily continues to berate herself about Brian, hardly sharing with anyone, especially Leo Mac, a new student with whom Emily is asked to work.  His absence from a group presentation as well as a chance Halloween encounter has her asking questions of Leo who freely but angrily reveals his hidden truths.  Still reluctant to share all her secrets, except with the disinterested Meredith, Emily capably determines the nature of Leo's complicated situation and offers him friendly support, sadly something that she cannot accept.  However, when a final secret, both more personal and unnerving, is carelessly revealed, Emily's innermost feelings ask for a voice.

As the narrator who shares her responses to a stream of stupefying revelations, Emily becomes a real girl, not a cardboard cut-out of a teen.  In dealing with a death, a funeral and her family dynamics, her inertia is quite evident, few things rousing her attention or interest.  Her brain may keep taking her back to thoughts of Brian and the others' secrets, but she finds solace in visiting Meredith and in her own diversionary interest in Leo.  Leo's gruff and protective manner intrigues Emily while providing the reader with a sympathetic character for whom we can cheer.  

Although Emily's dad and aunt play significant roles in her dramas, I could not fully empathize with them, finding their reactions generally incredible or vague.  I was most responsive to Emily's mom whose sarcasm, indignation and resolve are more in keeping with the circumstances of her family life.  She may not be totally likeable (few people are) but she is more real than her husband or sister-in-law who probably should be more emotional and reactive, given the circumstances.  Luckily, Emily is real enough to deal with these issues in her own way; after all, she is Emily For Real.

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