Lesléa Newman’s cautionary tale told from a teenage girl’s perspective
Set on Long Island in the 1970s, Newman embraces the Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuco reference, finally telling the story from the young woman’s point of view. Although Newman’s version is purely fictional, “Jailbait” feels like a true-to-life autobiography written in a puffy pink diary with a heart-shaped lock. Though the main character Andi is far from teen-queen femme, her world feminizes and sexualizes her.
Andi has the body of a mature woman, which elicits a mixture of desire and spite from those around her. Unable to navigate these reactions, Andi closes in on herself, shrinking for protection from schoolmates and family.
Andi’s parents fail to see her as she really is, as a bright, maturing young woman who tends to find beauty in nature instead of makeup and fashion. Her mother relentlessly pushes traditional ideals of femininity, and because Andi fails to live up to them, her mother both ignores and denigrates her. Andi’s father insists on treating her like a little girl; he expects a child’s affection even though she’s long since outgrown it.
The parents’ ignorance of Andi contributes to her faulty self-esteem, as does the constant bullying she endures at school. So when a 30-something man shows interest, Andi begins to feel attractive, interesting, and wanted. The older man, sleazy-loser Frank, doesn’t appreciate Andi any more than her parents do, but she mistakes his lechery for approval and, eventually, for love.
Like Amy Fisher, Andi is willing to commit a crime to prove herself to her man-friend, though her delinquency is much less severe. Even so, Newman sensitively illustrates just how easily an undervalued teenage girl can trade her sense of self for a little attention.
Ironically, sleazy-loser Frank’s kindness and cruelty ultimately help Andi to speak out at school and at home. And without forcing a tidy and unrealistic ending, Newman allows Andi to find herself again.
Though the Long Island Lolita story is familiar, Newman’s take is refreshing because she refuses to be a voyeur or a judge. Instead, Newman immerses herself in the life and psyche of a suburban teenage girl, an approach that allows her to encourage empathy in and fully communicate with both young and adult readers.
Further, Newman precisely and delicately puts together the puzzle of dysfunctional family life, providing readers with an opportunity to process past hurts and keep from recreating them.
At times, Newman’s ideas may be too subtle for the average teen, which is why parents or guardians may want to read the book along with their sons and daughters. The tale could serve as an excellent introduction to a meaningful parent-child conversation about sexuality and appropriate relationships.