by Laura Buzo
Published by Knopf BFYR
on December 11, 2012
Originally published in Australia as Good Oil (Allen and Unwin, 2010)
My summary: Fifteen year old Amelia takes an after school job in a local supermarket and immediately falls hard for Chris, a twenty-one-year-old university student. Chris, in turn, is obsessed with their co-worker Kathy, but only because he can't have Michaela, the girl of his dreams. Chris is training Amelia at work, and soon the two of them are sharing their opinions on books, their families, and their views on life. Can this supermarket flirtation go the distance, or does it come with a built-in expiration date?
My take: Love and Other Perishable Items is one of those books in which nothing much seems to happen -- two major characters and not much plot. But by the time I'd finished reading, I realized there's a whole lot going on underneath the surface of the story. The writing is the kind of lovely prose that calls no attention to itself but is, upon closer inspection, really accomplished.
The plot of Love and Other Perishable Items centers around unrequited love. Amelia has a desperate crush on Chris. He seems to be pursuing their co-worker Kathy, but is actually pining for Michaela, who, after a brief relationship with him, has gone back to an ex-boyfriend.
Amelia and Chris ... where do I begin? She's young adult, he's new adult -- two characters at very different stages in life. She's just beginning to explore the idea of romantic love, he's had his heart broken. She's taking her first tentative steps toward independence, he's discovering that independence isn't always what's its cracked up to be.
I adored Amelia. She's totally out of place in high school, a kid who's actually interested in discussing the assigned reading. She's smart and observant beyond her years, which also makes her socially awkward.
Go easy on the fifteen year old boys, Youngster. They're doing the best they can.At first, Chris comes off as mainly interested in drinking and women. But once the narrative begins to include his point of view through his journals, it becomes apparent that Chris is a romantic. He's a college student with vague dreams of independence but no idea how to achieve them. He feels that he had some sort of deep emotional connection with Michaela and is trying to achieve that with someone else, to no avail.
Chris and Amelia are separated by a six-year age difference. Later in life, this six year age gap might be insignificant, but at the time of this story it's an unsurmountable -- if not illegal -- chasm. But you feel the connection between these two. Both of them live way too much in their heads, both of them are pining for an epic sort of love that may or may not exist in real life. As Chris trains Amelia as a supermarket employee, the two of them debate two classic novels dealing with hopeless, unrequited love: The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations.
I hate that Pip still believes that Estella secretly loves him and that she'll come around one day. She won't.I loved the fact that Amelia is studying love the way you'd study math or chemistry. She analyzes the relationships in books and she analyzes the relationships she sees in real life: Chris and Kathy, her parents, her friend Penny. But then she learns that academic ideas can often fail in the real world. She goes to a party with her older co-workers and feels completely out of place, especially as she has to watch Chris watch Kathy go off into a room with some other guy. These kind of scenes were excruciatingly perfect.
Though most of the book was that subtle and well-crafted, there were places I could hear the clanking of moving parts. Namely, the very didactic discussions of feminism. Don't get me wrong --I love a book that takes a nuanced yet pointed look at gender roles in society. But the discussion of feminism in Love and Other Perishable items was all telling and no showing.
In a letter, Amelia tells Chris she is angry that her dad travels so much for work, worried that her mom seems so unhappy, annoyed that her father asks her to clean up his lunch dishes. Then she suddenly connects her dad's insistence that she do chores to some wider pattern of gender oppression. Chris writes back, launching into a capital-L Lecture about waves of feminist theory, segueing into an argument that white middle-class women aren't really oppressed like single mothers in housing projects and ... what?? To me, this part of the book felt much too heavy-handed.
Still, I thought Chris and Amelia were two of the most complex and fascinating characters I've found in YA this year. Does Amelia's anger at her absent father mean that she's a girl with Daddy issues and explain her attraction to a much older guy? Or is she attracted to Chris just because he's safe, a guy she can practice her flirting on without worrying about him actually making a move on her? And does Chris, with his pining for Michaela and fleeting attraction to Amelia, also seem to have a pattern for wanting unavailable girls? Might these two end up together ten years down the line? I loved the ending. It was perfect!
While Love and Other Perishable Items wasn't my very very favorite literary YA novel of the year -- I'd give that honor to either Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley or Small Damages by Beth Kephart -- it's definitely worth reading if you enjoy books that are complex and thought-provoking.
I was confused when I saw this passage from the Australian version of the book quoted on Goodreads.
"I am Chris, your friendly staff trainer. You’ll be with me for three hour shifts. I will call you grasshopper and you will call me sensei. And I will give you the good oil."
I didn't remember that quote. Then I found that in my American copy, the passage (on page 7) had been translated to this:
"I am Chris, your friendly staff trainer. You'll be with me for three hour shifts. I will call you grasshopper and you will call me sensei. And I will share with you what I know."
I thought we learned from Harry Potter that Americans want the authentic slang. But nice job on the American cover. The Australian cover (below) is just all kinds of wrong for this kind of story.