OCTOBER 7, 2011
WITHIN 24 HOURS of getting her braces off, freshman honor student Martine “Teenie” Lashley discovers tight clothing. The duckling-to-swan transformation begins Christopher Grant’s debut novel about a Brooklyn teen born of West Indian immigrants. Grant captures the flavor of Teenie’s Caribbean neighborhood: bustling shops on Flatbush Avenue, family meals of shrimp curry and plantains, and her father’s Bajan dialect, from Barbados. Like many immigrants, Teenie’s parents insist that their children recognize their heritage: “My mother has always told us to be proud of our unique lineage and made a point to tell us about our ancestry. She says it’s important, something about if you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know where you’re going.”
Against the backdrop of her parents’ conservative values and high expectations, Teenie struggles to fit in with her peers at Brooklyn Technical School. Unprepared for the attention elicited by her newly mature appearance, Teenie endures the jealousy of other girls as well as catcalls from men on the street. But none of that matters when handsome Greg Millons, the school’s star basketball player, starts flirting with her. In Teenie’s eyes, Greg has everything a girl would ever want. As her best friend, Cherise, puts it, “He plays ball and he’s a senior. Mmm. You’re so lucky, Teenie.”
If this sounds like the setup for a sweet love story, it is not. While Teenie swoons over Greg, self-involved Cherise revels in her own blossoming pseudo-relationship with a supposed college student she met on Facebook. “Big Daddy” gives Cherise “whatever she wants, sends her jewelry, clothes, money.” Eventually, Big Daddy convinces Cherise to meet him in person. Greg, meanwhile, jeopardizes his dreamboat status when he brags to Teenie about his college prospects and sends instant messages such as, “I was like damn, Shorty got a bangin’ body.”
We have a hunch these relationships will end badly, and they do. But it’s the specific ways they end that are surprising. While Cherise’s Facebook “friend” presents a more obvious threat (and her naivety, frankly, strains credulity), it is Teenie who ultimately faces the greater danger when Greg corners her in a stairwell and demands she give him what he creepily calls “a blessing.” Her refusal only feeds his determination to get what he wants: “That’s what I can’t stand about y’all girls. Y’all be wearing all these tight clothes, getting brothers all charged up, and then be frontin’. You ain’t doing that to me.
After employing an endangered girl’s first line of defense — “I … kick him in the balls as hard as I can” — Teenie emerges frightened yet relatively unscathed while learning a valuable, if transparently author-imposed, lesson: “I have to take some responsibility for putting myself in that situation. I should have known better.”
Teenie, then, is not a simple story of heartbreak, but a cautionary tale. Though the novel isn’t gritty, per se, Grant avoids sugarcoating matters; his scenes of sex and violence, while brief and necessary to the story, are fairly graphic. It remains to be seen whether teenage readers will appreciate the scare tactics; however, most parents would consider Grant’s warnings worthwhile.
Grant’s book suffers from some typical first-novel flaws: The beginning sags with background information, while the pacing in the middle is a little too revved up. “Send your character up a tree and throw rocks at her” is sound writing advice; however, Grant practically showers Teenie with grenades as she endures event after traumatic event. In the course of a mere 50 or so pages, the protagonist’s friends shun her, her dream guy sexually assaults her, and a girl named Passion threatens her life. Her situation, one might imagine, must surely improve from here. But then Greg attempts blackmail, and Passion, her face smeared with Vaseline to prevent scratches, launches an attack with box-cutters. Finally, in an incident that is perhaps meant to be humorous, Teenie pushes a grocery cart out of a Caribbean market only to have a wheel come loose and a bucket of stinky codfish spill over her.
Given all that Teenie endures, Grant wraps up the story a bit too tidily, with friendships miraculously mended and seemingly unreachable academic goals met. On the whole, though, the novel succeeds: the setting is unique, the writing is clear, and Teenie’s character is believable — likable and imperfect — as when she observes one Sunday, “I never pay attention during this prayer and usually spend the two or three minutes looking for the worst-dressed person in church.” Teenie offers a distinctive and original perspective from a promising new author, along with fresh insight into the second-generation immigrant experience.