Finny, by Justin Kramon, Random House RRP$15, 384 pages
Imagine Charles Dickens had been bundled into a time machine, given a stack of Judy Blume novels to read en route to the 21st century, then asked to write a coming-of-age tale set in modern America. He might well have produced something along the lines of Justin Kramon’s gently charming and slyly subversive debut novel, which combines old-fashioned, episodic storytelling with frank descriptions of modern love and sex.
We meet Delphine Short, who prefers to be called “Finny”, at age 14, “a tough, rascally kid, with a plucky assurance, hair as red as a ripe tomato, a spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks like she’d been splashed with mud – cheeks that were puffed up like bread starting to rise, the kind of cheeks old aunties like to pinch. Sometimes when they did that, Finny pinched back”.
Like most bright girls her age in conventional, middle-class homes, she rolls her eyes at her family’s idiosyncrasies: her mother’s insistence on “nice” grooming and manners, and her elder brother’s eagerness to please and her Pepto-Bismol popping father’s incessant quoting of “great men”.
Finny’s dad is the first of many Dickensian eccentrics we meet in this novel. Kramon manages to make him simultaneously comical and endearing to the reader, and maddening to Finny. Kramon takes an everyday personality tic and magnifies it into something larger than life. For instance, Mr Short’s habit of leaving a solemn pause before attributing quotes to “Einstein” or “Picasso” “in the way other people say ‘Amen’ at the end of prayers”. He never seems to quote from the lives of “great women”: one of the many reasons Finny will storm off, feeling, like so many adolescents, that: “There seemed to be something about her family she couldn’t take in. Or maybe it was her family who couldn’t take her in. All their agreements and rules, rituals and defences and bargains, it was all wrapped in a fog of mystery, a haze that Finny wasn’t sure would burn off in the light of experience.”
After one such storming-off, Finny meets a boy called Earl. And it’s here that Kramon begins his tender overthrowing of the romantic clichés that can turn impressionable young women into desperate Madame Bovarys. Earl is funny-looking: “His body was like none Finny had ever seen. It looked like a man’s, with broad shoulders and strong arms – but smaller, and with shorter legs. Like the kind of pictures you can mix and match.” She doesn’t fall for him as an object of desire, but for the way he brings out her better self. When Finny’s parents find out she’s been kissing Earl, she’s packed off to boarding school in the first of a series of extended separations that threaten their relationship.
Those who expect the plot to “hot up” at this point will be disappointed. Like life, Finny’s story is just one damn thing after another. Funny, sad, bewildering, exciting and disappointing things happen to her, teaching her messy truths about human relationships. Kramon sets the universality of experiences such as betrayal and bereavement against a quirky cast that includes a narcoleptic piano teacher and a spice-trading con man.
Adult readers will find echoes of their own youth in Finny’s story as she grows up, goes to college and finds work. The arc of her romance with Earl is movingly realistic, and the descriptions of their sexual experiences is refreshingly honest: unsentimental but full of heart.
By the time Kramon’s novel lets Finny go, she is 35. I won’t tell you whether she ends up with Earl, but she does become a kind and confident young woman. If I had a teenage daughter, I’d give her this book and hope it would help her turn out the same way.