Thursday, September 08, 2011

Under Pressure: Water Balloon by Audrey Vernick

So I just stand there, like the world's biggest loser. Forever. But forever, it turns out, is not long enough. Leah's face just looks blank, but Jane! Jane could kill people with the meanness on her face.

I look for courage. I remind myself that we have always been friends and that this is the only way to fix it. "Look, I'm sorry about before. That was a really bad idea. With the water balloons. I screwed up. I thought it would be funny. It wasn't."
"God, Marley! I can't believe I even invited you. You just completely ruined it. This will always be the party when..."

Everyone is staring.

Now Jane is hissing at me. "Did you really think we were going to be having little water balloon fights? I mean, when are you ever going to grow up?"

I walk to the driveway and get my bike.

Since the summer after second-grade, water balloon fights have been a ritual with Marley and Leah and Jane, a surprise blitz sometime after school ends, with points for originality.

With Jane and Leah absorbed in the eighth grade drama class performances, things have not been as close between them for the past year. But Jane's July 4 pool party seems like the perfect time to revive the water balloon blitz tradition, and Marley carries it out to perfection, surprising Jane's guests, especially her new high school theatre friends, with a barrage from an upstairs window. But the blitz is a bust, and Marley realizes that her long-term friendship with Leah and Jane is irreparably sunk.

Nothing is going right for Marley this summer. Her newly separated parents have decided she will stay with her dad in his dreary rental house most of the summer while her mom visits friends and helps out after her own mom's hip surgery. Her dad surprises her on the second day by telling her he's gotten her a daily babysitting job for the duration with a couple of clingy but quarrelsome five-year-old girl twins who seem to hate her right away. To make the isolation from her old happier life complete, Dad's computer needs fixing and he claims that "the economic realities of maintaining two households" rule out internet connections anyway, so there's no hope of keeping up with her other friends through Facebook and e-mail. And her dad, a hardcore weed-hater, seems to believe that a great father-daughter bonding activity involves rooting up the endlessly blooming dandelions in his neglected yard.

Marley herself feels like a water balloon, overstretched, shapeless, and ready to burst at any moment.

Then good things happen. The boy next door, Jack, seems to like her, even inviting her on a "date" to watch a Yankees' game in the city with him. Marley begins to "will" Jack to come outside and go with her while she walks her dog, Gehrig, and when she begins to spend the late afternoons watching Jack's baseball practices, she meets her Literary Mag co-editor Callie, who seems happy to be her friend.

Marley still longs for her old life, but little by little she finds a place in her new life, an understanding that old relationships don't necessarily last forever, that new ones can grow to fill their place, just as new grass grows in the places where the dandelions once bloomed.

Going up the back stairs, I almost trip over a potted plant. I take a closer look. I'd know it anywhere.... A dandelion, potted in a planter by my weed-hating dad. This could only be a Gesture. It must have killed him to do it--to rescue a plant he'd want to exterminate and plant it. For me.

I let the thoughts run loose in my brain instead of trying to hold them inside. And I wait for wisdom.

Wisdom's a no-show.

But I have learned something this summer. Life has some fantastic surprises.

From a bare-bones overview, Audrey Vernick's debut novel, Water Balloon (Clarion, 2011), may seem like just another "life after parents' divorce" trek through well-trodden fictional territory, but Vernick's lyrical telling of this story from the inside out through the observations of the memorable Marley make it an exceptional read. Marley is a believable thirteen-year-old, with one foot still in a childhood of best friends forever and a happy home life, reluctant to face the finality of the changes which are rushing toward her and seemingly beyond her control. But her basic goodness and self-awareness forge a a new way despite her fears. Just as her pesky twin charges sense that they are the only ones who can master their training wheel-less bikes, wisdom does show up for Marley in the discovery that she, too, must go forward into the very different life that lies ahead.

Kirkus Reviews agrees: "A nicely reassuring read with a satisfying ending; a harbinger of more good novels to come from this author."

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