Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Girl Can't Help It! The Calculus of Change by Jessie Hilb

I have a secret passion for calculus. I like the idea of infinitesimal change, because it feels like somehow I can control it. I am in charge of getting the numbers and symbols where they need to go. What I can't control in real life is the sudden, catastrophic change that often comes without steps or warning and makes life insufferably different. Like a dead mom.

But it is in real life, in calculus class, that Aden is hit by a change she can't control.

A boy named Tate asks her to tutor him. Looking at him is like a shot out of the blue.

Talking to Tate is like swimming underwater. Everything silences, and it's just him and me. But I can't breathe.

He smiles. I'm toast.

The air seems electric when she's with him. They laugh together. They finish sentences together. They seem to sparkle together.

But Tate has a steady girlfriend, Maggie. Aden tries to forget about her and savor every moment she has with Tate. But she admits to herself that she is jealous of Maggie, thin and stylish in her skinny jeans, while Aden feels like a bubble in her long skirts and tunics. "Can a girl be pretty if she's also fat?" she wonders.

But times with Tate are like out-of-body experiences for Aden. He makes her feel beautiful. She lives for those times when they are together.

The rest of life seems a slow slog. Her younger brother Jon is restless, unhappy with her father's plan for him to win a lacrosse scholarship and confesses to Aden that he wants to go to Rhode Island School of Design and create video games. Her dad tries to keep the family together, but he is often irrationally angry, especially with Jon. And then her best friend Marissa confides that she thinks she's in love with one of their teachers.

"Lance? Lance who?"

"Lance Danson." she says, still looking down.

"Wait, what? As in Mr. Danson? "He's married. He has a kid! Dude," I say, "be careful there."

"I can't help it," Marissa says quietly.

Suddenly Aden is struck with the unsuspected similarity between them. Tate has a steady girlfriend, and yet, she can't help the way she feels around him, either.

Love does not follow the rules. There's no certainty about it.

Is attraction as quixotic as Cupid's arrow? Or can it be subject to rational calculation? Little Richard's classic song says "She can't help it, the girl can't help it." But Aden is the Queen of calculus class. She likes scenarios she can control. But she can't control the fact that her mother has been dead since she was seven. She can't help her brother Jon, who seems rudderless, diverted by drugs and his girlfriend, even though she's always been his substitute mom. She can't seem to get through to her dad, who seems to be sinking into unresolved grief and rage. And finally, her own self doubt gets in the way of logic. She feels she wants and deserves more from Tate, but if she doesn't get it, can she bear to turn away from him? She begins to do irrational things that make her wonder.

Jessie Hilb's The Calculus of Change (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2018) takes on the messy improbability of love and life, the things that can be controlled and the things that cannot, the things that can be helped and the things that cannot, in an absorbing story of young love and mature love lost and found, and hoped for that almost sinks her main character beneath the waters of her first love. No absolute answers are offered, except to keep swimming, to give it your best stroke, as Aden does in a book that will resonate strongly with young adult readers.

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