Study Guide

My Heartbeat Quotes

  • Communication

    My whole family's reaction to any kind of conflict is to avoid it. Each of us would prefer to spend money or chew off a limb rather than have a fight. Our aversion to fights is a quiet one except for Link. He always makes a big drama out of removing himself from an argument. The rest of us are more low-key about it. (1.27)

    In their desperation to avoid conflict, the McConnells have sacrificed their ability to communicate. At all. They are far more comfortable avoiding each other (and any chance of confrontation), so they fail to address some of the really important issues until it's too late.

    I don't say anything. He's not asking me a question so much as telling me it's none of my business. He never says that to me in a flat-out way, of course. It's more Link's style to put all the important information into what he doesn't say. Sometimes I understand him and lots of times I don't. (1.53)

    There's the problem with unspoken methods of communication: Sometimes you are misunderstood or misinterpreted. If even your little sister, who idolizes you, can't understand what you're getting at, how is anyone else supposed to understand you? How much of Link's problems could be solved by just talking to someone?

    Neither Newland or the Countess can bring themselves to say the obvious: I love you and no one else. Newland, in particular, is so concerned with what people might think of him that when he sends the Countess flowers, he doesn't include a card. The Countess doesn't want to upset anyone and therefore never asks for anything. Not even the thing she wants most, which is for Newland to love her. This seems like an unbelievably horrible way to live your life. (2.36)

    Doesn't the Countess's situation feel a bit too familiar? Why can't Ellen see that she's in the midst of living her life in the same "horrible way" that the Countess is by swallowing her love for James and by "never asking for anything" from the two people she admires most? Even if she does see the similarities, why do you think she doesn't do anything to change her situation?

    Talking with Dad can go two ways. One, he knows you don't understand what he's talking about and he is disappointed in you. Two, he doesn't know and so keeps on talking, which gives you a chance to figure it out. (3.26)

    No wonder Ellen and Link see their father as such an intimidating figure. Dad takes his role as educator/child-shaper so seriously that he's lost any ability to convey affection. So much for light, friendly banter amongst family.

    "Do you think Link's gay?" Mom says. "Is that what you want to know?"

    She has stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk. She almost never breaks her stride. When we were little we could never get her to stop.

    "I don't know," I say. "I just wondered."

    "I see," she says. "Have you asked him?"

    "No," I say, annoyed that she is trying to dodge my question. "Have you?"

    "No," she says. "I haven't. Do you want to talk about this?"

    I nod. Sure, of course.

    At least Mom is willing to talk about things directly. Everyone else in the family prefers a passive-aggressive, need-to-know-basis type of communication, which is not particularly effective when it comes to these kinds of issues.

    "Would you care if they were?" I ask.

    "No. I care that Link's happy. Your father, on the other hand, cares very much. It's one of many reasons that I have never broached the subject with Link."


    "Has Dad asked Link?"

    "No, of course not," Mom says. "Your father has many wonderful qualities. Direct discourse is not one of them." (5.17-21)

    Wow. So many problems, where do we start? Mom is in a position to be a major advocate for Link, but instead she avoids the issue, leaving him isolated and in the lurch. If she knows that Dad won't talk to Link about it, why doesn't she? Even in secret? And we're not even going to get started about what it must be like to be married to someone you can't talk to about these serious matters…

    "What if Link thinks it's nobody's business?" I ask.

    "If you want to know your brother better, you have to be willing to let him know that."

    As if by not asking Link, I don't want to know him. That's not fair.

    "Yes," I say, wanting to yell at her that if she has many reasons for not asking Link, I might do well to follow her example.

    "I know Link can be a difficult person to talk to," Mom says. "He is very like his father, but they are both worth every effort."

    "Hmmmm," I say, no longer wanting to yell, just frustrated that I am not going to get an answer from anyone other than my prickly, secretive brother. (5.24-29)

    Mom is kind of throwing Ellen under the bus. She's too scared about what will happen if she talks to Link about his possible homosexuality, so she makes her naïve fourteen-year-old do it for her. Yikes. How do you think things would have been different if she had been a bit braver about confronting/supporting Link?

    "Link and I have been needing to have this conversation for some time," he says.

    "You didn't have a conversation," I say, in case he thinks people stomping out is any kind of talking.

    "We had enough," James says. "Our positions are clear now."

    James is an experienced Link translator. Even though Link didn't stick around for a good talk to DTR (Define The Relationship), he did protest pretty loudly about not being gay. Even though that may not be the complete truth, James knows where he stands.

    "And if it's not asking too much," James says, "I would like to cure at least one McConnell of the belief that saying nothing means there's nothing to say." (6.18)

    Boom, nailed it. James sees the problem that the McConnell's lack of communication is developing, and we love him for talking to Ellen about everything. He's clearly the one person who is willing to do so.

    Before Link met James, my brother and I spent time together giving each other quiet company. I would watch him build model planes, cars, or ships. He might read me a story —skipping over the sections he deemed dull— or help me build a palace from an ancient set of building blocks. We didn't sit around chatting. It was only after James entered the picture that I heard Link talk a lot. Now I know that much too much was going unsaid, but without James around I would never have heard Link's opinions on movies, books, other people, or music. (8.2)

    This struck us as a bit sad, really. It's perfectly fine to enjoy spending quiet time together, but it provides a glimpse into how isolating the McConnell household truly is: Ellen only heard all of those opinions being addressed to someone else.

    I could talk about how I am at least six steps ahead of him when it comes to coping with the unwritten social laws about gay people. But I am reluctant to have a disagreement or, worse and more likely, an argument with my father. Even if he is clueless, I don't want to disappoint him. And anyway, the talk with Dad about gay people surely belongs more to my brother than to me.

    It must be exhausting to constantly have to come up with reasons not to talk to somebody about something that is super important.

    I could have— should have— guessed from Mom's furious, frightened eyes that she was getting ready to blame Dad for what Link has done. No doubt, Dad flew home with a similar intention. I see a much delayed fight taking place about their different ideas regarding my brother's life. I don't see anyone responding to whatever important information Link has put into his blank exams. I hope there will be no yelling involved. (13.11)

    Everyone is ready to place the blame on someone else, and yet the hopes are still to avoid any conflict whatsoever. Link gave his family a wake-up call; it would be almost criminal to not use this opportunity to finally say the things that need to be said. So why is Ellen so afraid of yelling?

    "Your father means well," James says. "And when you want to tell him what he is afraid to know, he might find a way to approve."

    "I tried to talk to Dad," Link says. "But it was pointless. It wouldn't change what he thinks is best."

    "It doesn't matter what he thinks is best," James says. "It's what you think.

    "Right," Link says. "What I think matters to him."

    "You matter to him," James says. "You underestimate what that is worth." (14.71-75)

    "Talking to _____ is pointless" is a common teenage refrain. There are many reasons why people think talking about stuff is worthless, but none of them are valid. Communication is such a valuable commodity, but you never notice it until the lack of communication leads to a total breakdown. Sure, Link might not be able to change his dad's mind at first, but let's put it this way: Nothing will change until he talks to his dad, no matter what.

    "You can make me go," Link says, "but you can't force me to talk to anyone. It's a waste."

    "Your persistent retreat into silence is precisely why you are going into therapy," Mom says.

    "What, all of a sudden silence in this house is a bad thing?" Link asks. "When the hell did this happen?"

    "Your language is unnecessary," Dad says. (15.6-9)

    Thankfully, Mom is finally putting her foot down about opening up lines of communication. It seems like she might be more naturally prone to talking things out, but has let Dad call the shots for a bit too long.

    "There is nothing wrong with silence," Mom says, pouring her tea with one hand, holding her drink with the other. "It's not a bad way to express yourself. What concerns us about your silence is that you are not sure what you are expressing with it."

    "I'm sure," Link says. "I know what I am expressing."

    "I'm not convinced you do," Mom says. "It's a bit too loud for you to be so certain."

    "What will it take for you to believe I know what my silence means?" Link asks.

    "When it's not so hostile," Mom says. "I don't mind the hostility aimed at us, but so much of it is landing on you." (15.20-24)

    Geez, Mom, where were you with this knowledge-bomb six chapters ago? It seems like Mom has a good handle on the situation—so why has it taken her this long to do anything about it? Do you think it is distraction from being so busy at work? An attempt to keep the peace with her authoritarian husband? To avoid causing Link to pull away even farther? Why is everyone so scared to talk to each other?

  • Family

    James's parents are lawyers at a firm on Wall Street. They work even more than Mom and Dad do, but not because they need the money. Mr. Wentworth is from one of those families that haven't spent the whole trust fund yet. Mom says Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth are not qualified to be people, let alone fit to be parents. Dad says they are probably good lawyers and Mom shouldn't bad-mouth James's parents in front of him. (3.6)

    It takes all kinds to have a family, but there are definitely times when you wonder why some people bother. Poor James has two parents who are at best disinterested and at worst neglectful of his emotional and physical well-being. Seeing something like that, when you work so hard to maintain your own family, certainly makes Mom mad. And who can blame her, when it seems like she's trying so hard to make up for their negligence.

    We begin every September determined to continue our summer habit of having a civilized sit-down dinner during which we each review our day and discuss future plans. Mom likes to say the McConnell family dinner hour is sacred. And it is. I like hearing how everyone is and what Mom is working on or if Link has a track meet or Dad a plane to catch. It's nice, although, truth be told, our sacred hour tends to erode as the year progresses. (3.9)

    These days it feels harder and harder to do things the old-fashioned way, so you have to respect Mom trying her darnedest to hold on to tradition. Eventually we'll all be getting status updates on Facebook in order to know how our sibling's day went.

    The thing about Dad is that he makes you want and dread his attention at the same time. I like the fact that he's interested in my thoughts, but I'm always terrified of what he thinks about what I think. After all, I know he's judging whether or not my mind has any kind of a heartbeat yet. What can I safely say about what I thought? (3.21)

    This is one of the reasons why Ellen and Link feel like they can't talk to their parents. If you're always being judged, wouldn't it feel less stressful to just keep quiet? Whatever happened to unconditional love?

    He and James have tickets for a play on Broadway. It's a revival of some big, serious play from England. The entire run is sold out. One of Mr. Wentworth's clients gave the tickets to him, and he gave them to James. If Mr. Wentworth has any free time, he plays squash or goes out to dinner with Mrs. Wentworth. Link and James get a lot of tickets to plays and concerts in
    this way. (3.30)

    Mr. Wentworth seems like a pretty awful dad. He's never around because he would rather do anything else than hang out with James. Do you think it's because of who James is, or is it just his natural antipathy to being a parent?

    It's not that Dad is a grown-up grade grubber, but our grades are the only objective measure he has of our education. And our education is how our minds will develop a life, never mind a heartbeat. Link says Dad wanted to be a teacher and takes out his career frustrations on us. I asked once if it were true he wanted to be a teacher, and Dad said, "No, only a linguist." Whatever that is. In any event, my father has no patience for people who don't utilize all of their talents or take advantage of all their opportunities.

    What are Dad's career frustrations? What does he do for a living? All we know is that he takes a lot of business trips and has strategy meetings. Do you think this was done purposefully by Freymann-Weyr? It certainly makes him feel even more elusive.

    You should always feel free to talk to me, Ellen. About anything. Your father and I love you both. No matter what."

    "I know," I say in a pleasant and evasive manner.

    They do love us. It's nice. I would rather have them for parents than Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth, but all this has been so very beside the point of the information I am seeking.

    We think everyone would rather have the McConnells instead of the Wentworths for parents. Yikes.

    How is it that my father, whom I think I know so well, has picked the wrong—the ignorant—laws to follow? How would Link—how would I—ever follow laws different from Dad's if his are the ones we learn first? (7.67)

    This is one of the main problems with growing up. Eventually you are forced to realize that your parents make mistakes, can be old-fashioned, or are sometimes downright bigoted, and then suddenly you have to forge your own path. Ugh.

    "Don't look so panic-stricken, Ellen," Dad says. "I'm only trying to get a sense of your life. It seems like I was just teaching Link fractions, and now he has a girlfriend and does math I can't understand."

    "Link taught himself fractions," I remind Dad. "It's why he skipped third grade."

    "I was speaking metaphorically," Dad says. "You guys change so fast. With you, I have a shot at staying one step ahead."

    He has no idea how Link has changed. And if he thinks he's a step ahead of me, he should think again.

    Poor Dad really is in the dark. He thinks he has a good grip on his kids, but really he's losing them pretty quickly. Why does he think he has more of a shot with staying one step ahead of Ellen but not Link?

    Members of the Coven are coming to visit his father tomorrow. The Coven is what James calls his three half sisters. They are from his father's first marriage. The youngest one is thirty-one but was my age when James was born. Mrs. Wentworth was already pregnant when she married Mr. Wentworth. The Coven, somewhat understandably, don't like James's mother. James doesn't like them at all. (9.35)

    When we finally learn all the details about James's family, it just gets sadder and sadder. Not only does he have negligent parents, but he also has some half-sisters that resent him because they blame him for being the final nail in the coffin of their parents' marriage.

    His essay is about the summer he stayed with the Coven at a house in Nantucket. The house had been his father's before he lost it to the first Mrs. Wentworth in the divorce settlement. James was nine that summer, and his parents were on a six-week tour of Asia. Each sister let him know how she held his mother responsible for breaking up her parents marriage. The essay is funny and sad and mean. It makes you feel horrible for James's mother, but also for the sisters. It makes you want to run a knife through Mr. Wentworth. (10.52)

    What does it say about James that he can take something as depressing as his family history and write an essay that comes off as funny?

    "I don't know anything," I say.

    "Right," Link says. "Neither do they. I just have to remind them of that."

    As if any of us needs reminding. Sometimes we are a family made up of people who know each other, but more and more often we are strangers who occasionally realize we are still living together.

    This is why communication is so important: If there was an open line between Link and his parents, do you think he would've had to leave his exams blank as a bold statement? Probably not.

    It occurs to me that the person who has taught me the most about the art of evasive language and behavior is neither of my skilled parents but my brother. How strange that we should have this crucial bit in common and yet be so different. So separate. (14.15)

    It's practically the older sibling's job to teach the younger kid how to be evasive with their parents. However, where do you think Link learned it from? We're thinking it might've been a survival response to their dad.

  • Sexual Identity

    "No, James is much cuter," Laurel says. "But Polly thinks it's too obvious he doesn't have time for girls."

    I think it's just as obvious that Link's time is similarly engaged, but I don't say anything. My brother's and James's lack of time for girls isn't something I've ever thought about in quite those terms. And the terms, spoken aloud by people I don't really know, sound different from when I make quiet note of them. I don't particularly like the way they sound spoken aloud, although I don't know why.

    "Doesn't have time for girls" is an interesting way of putting it, isn't it? It doesn't imply he doesn't like girls, or that he specifically likes boys better, just that he's already pretty preoccupied with something else. But it's enough to make Ellen think twice about why Link and James exude such an exclusive aura.

    But wouldn't I know? This is so ridiculous. It's one thing for me to respect Link's desire to leave important information unsaid. It's quite another for me to be unable to tell myself critical facts about the people I love. I will tolerate bad grades but not this kind of ignorance. Surely I can follow Link's rules but also find things out. I will ask Mom.

    This is a pretty fair question. Ellen is really close to her older brother, so she's right in feeling like she should know something as big as his sexual orientation. However, is it super important to their relationship? Does she have to know in order to remain close?

    "I don't know if your brother is gay," Mom says, pouring milk into the bottom of her cup. "It's clear to me he and James love each other. Link seems happy more often than not."
    For this we had to get tea and cake?

    "They are both very young," Mom says. "I'm not sure they know." (5.14-15)

    Gotta love Mom. She has a clear bottom line: If he's happy, she's happy. She doesn't need to put a label on it, at least not until things start going sour.

    "I have nothing to hide from Ellen," James says. "About anything. Can you say the same?"
    Furious, Link turns to me. "I am not gay," he says. "James is gay."

    "She didn't say anything about being gay," James says. "My God, she's like your clone. She didn't even utter the word."

    "She implied it," Link says. "You told me to answer her and I did. I answered her implied question."

    "Then answer this: What makes me gay and not you?" James asks.

    "You've slept with people," Link says.

    There's a lot going on in this quote. James just wants to DTR (Define the Relationship), because, thanks to Ellen, the question is finally out there. Link, on the other hand, is furious. He's angry because James has slept with other people; he's angry because he's not sure if he's gay or not; and he's livid because he's being forced to confront his own confusion and shame.

    "What about being gay?" James asks. "Could you be more specific?"

    "Is it the sex that makes you gay? Was Link right?"

    I am about to ask why Link hasn't slept with anyone. Why Link hasn't, for instance, slept with James. If sex were the one thing separating me from James, I would do it. Wouldn't Link?

    People have been wondering what makes someone gay for quite some time now. It's not something that is easily defined but that also feels important to clarify when you're in situations like this.

    "I'm not an expert," he says, "but I don't think sex is the thing that makes someone gay."

    "What does?"

    "It's more whom you love," James says. "The how and why of it. And if what you get back is worth what you give up."

    What is he talking about?

    "Is Link?" I ask, putting aside the question of what makes someone gay.

    "Is Link what?" James asks.

    "Gay," I say, being specific. "Is he gay?"

    "He doesn't know," James says. "Which makes him afraid he is. Which makes him swear he isn't."

    "Are you?" I ask, realizing yet again that I am not going to get an answer about my brother. I might as well find out about James.

    "I don't know either," James says, pouring us both another glass. "It doesn't scare me, though."

    Why is it so scary for Link, but James is seemingly unperturbed? What is the difference between them? We're thinking it's a combo of family and personality.

    "It's not that I don't like girls," James says. "I do."

    "Which girls?" I ask, reviewing the ones who told me to tell him hi. None of them deserve to sleep with James.

    "Just generic girls. That's why I have no idea if I'm gay."

    "Does Link like girls?"

    "You know, we make a big point of not talking about them," James says. "Girls don't interest me compared with Link. But compared with Link, men don't interest me either. All in all, though, girls are… girls have interesting qualities." (6.36-40)

    There are so many terms today that help define where people fall on the spectrum in regards to sexual identity. James seems to identify with bisexuality, or even pansexuality (the attraction to someone with no regard for their gender identification). What makes him so interesting here, though, is that he's not in a hurry to declare a label for himself in any way.

    "So you're not gay?" I ask, meaning, compared to Link am I enough?

    "Not any more than I ever was," James says.

    I get that the thing that matters to him is what he can have with somebody. Be it a girl, a boy, a man, or a woman. Right now I am the someone he has. This doesn't make him straight, but it doesn't make him gay either. We leave it unsaid. Not because it is to be avoided, but because it is obvious. (10.33-35)

    Ellen gets it, we think, and it's great that she is able to view things from James's perspective. But has she given any thought to whether James likes her because she's so much like Link? And is that important?

    Let me guess," James asks. "They're still afraid you're gay."

    So that's what it is. Fear. Dad's afraid Link's gay, and Mom's afraid Dad will be or already is handling it badly. It's not that either of them knows. They can't know anything for sure about Link. But the fear is everywhere. I do admire Mom, but I love James for saying clearly and fearlessly what is going on. I look to Link, who does not love clear and fearless speech nearly as much. (14.62-63)

    Why is there so much fear involved? Would it really be so bad if Link is gay? And if it is, is that because of what society will do with that information, or are they scared about their own responses? And don't these people know that the only thing they have to fear is fear itself? Rip the band-aid off, already.

    "I matter less than what he thinks is important," Link says. "And what could I have told him?

    "Whatever you were thinking," James says. "The truth."

    "What could I have told him that was true?" Link asks. "What is there about me that's true, and is it anything he wants to know?"


    "You could have told him whatever you are telling yourself," James says.

    "I don't think that would have helped much," Link says. "Which is, I realize, your point." (14.77-79, 81-82)

    Ellen has a hard time following this circuitous conversation, and we don't blame her. James wants Link to just talk to his dad about everything they've been sweeping under the rug (or should we say hiding in the closet? Ba-dum-bum). However, Link doesn't know enough about how he feels to tell the "truth" about it—which is why he's kind of stuck.

    I think it is the men he has been with that make James reluctant. The men he slept with in order to annoy Link. I read in one of my books on gay identity (or was it yet another good-sex-is-safe-sex pamphlet?) that when you have sex with someone, you have sex with all the people that person has slept with. Perhaps James is somewhat creeped out by the idea of those men coming into contact with me when they were meant to help him reach my brother. (18.13)

    Link isn't the only one trying to sort out his sexual identity. Even though James is much more comfortable talking about the fluidity of his attractions, he's still pretty unsure about what it all means to him.

  • Literature

    Dad's present is a hardcover copy of The Age of Innocence. It's by Edith Wharton, who also wrote Ethan Frome, which I have been trying to read all summer. It is required reading for incoming ninth graders at Cedar Hill, where I will start school in two weeks. I have read the first thirteen pages of Ethan Frome five times. It is boring beyond belief. Dad says if I have to read a book by Edith Wharton, then The Age of Innocence is the one to read. (2.17)

    This is a sweet gesture coming from her father. Dude has pretty high standards, and it's clear that he wants her to enjoy Edith Wharton, so he gives her a book that he considers better (and perhaps easier) than Ethan Frome.

    James and Link are reading A Tale of Two Cities and are racing to see who will finish first. James will win because he skips any part of a book that bores him, whereas Link is devoted to each page. (2.35)

    Skipping parts that bore you is an abomination, and James should be sentenced to a year of reading Tolkien's Silmarillion. Just kidding, you do you, James. But really, if it weren't important, the author wouldn't have written it. Most of the time, at least.

    "It's hard to find a happy ending in a good book,' Dad says.

    "What, only bad books have happy endings?" Link asks.

    "You're simplifying," Dad says to him, and to me he says, "A good book is a reflection of some kind of truth." (3.23-25)

    See, the problem here is how vague "good" is as a descriptor. You can find happy endings in many enjoyable books, and you can find them in many quality books as well. But Dad's implication is that a "good" book is one that challenges you to find the truth that is reflected in the story—and for some reason he doesn't think happy endings can be true. Hmm…

    I brace myself for another why, but amazingly enough Dad laughs and unearths a copy of Jane Eyre from the chaotic shelves in his study.

    "It's romantic drivel with a happy ending," he says, "but the characters should be unhappy enough for you." (4.38-39)

    There's something about Victorian angst that really appeals to Ellen, so her dad is right for thinking she'll like Jane Eyre. However, we think it's a bit unfair to Charlotte Brontë to call it romantic drivel.

    I am immediately obsessed with these characters and love them. The James character in Jane Eyre is named Mr. Rochester. This is the best book I have ever read. Ever. I don't know how this will have a happy ending, but it might involve a ghost. The house where Mr. Rochester lives is definitely haunted. (4.39)

    Romantic lead that reminds her of her crush? Check. Unhappy characters? Check. Ghost? Bonus check. We've got ourselves a compelling read, folks.

    I want to finally finish reading Jane Eyre before Mom and I go shopping. It's unbelievably good. Happy ending, unhappy characters whom I like, and parties with fires, fortunetellers, and last minute guests. I wonder if James would ever love me the way Mr. Rochester loves Jane.

    When you're reading about romance, sometimes it's really hard not to fantasize about real life people behaving the same way as the main character's love interest. But it can be dangerous to develop expectations that are too high because sometimes what makes the romantic lead so compelling is their utter perfection. There is only one Mr. Darcy, and in real life we'd probably find him irreparably snooty. (#justkidding #Darcyforever #teamDarcy #Firthfanatics)

    "Do you think I should give him some of the books I've read?"

    "I thought you had stopped, Ellen. Reading is not going to explain Link to you."

    "Maybe he doesn't know that it's not a big deal to be gay."

    "It's a big enough deal," James says. "My parents make me see a shrink because they're worried I'm gay."

    It's sweet but a bit naïve to think that the books (which, remember, even Ellen didn't think had the answers she was looking for) would solve all of Link's problems. If he is truly struggling with his sexual identity, then sure, maybe the books might help him gain a little perspective (he's not the first conflicted guy to deal with these things, after all), but the ones she's found probably don't really fit the bill.

    "I've noticed you're reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles," Dad says. "How are you finding it?"
    Tess of the d'Urbervilles is the novel by Thomas Hardy which James and Link hated. It is totally incomprehensible. So far, Tess has been raped, married, and abandoned. In order to know as little as that, I have had to read almost every page twice. In addition to laying out his plot, Hardy is busy making points about religion, politics, and class warfare. I don't know what the points are. Just that they are being made and I am missing them.

    "The book has its rewards," I say, which is not a lie. I don't like reading it, but an unmistakable self-satisfaction occurs every time I figure out the plot.

    Sometimes reading a book that is just a bit too mature for you can turn you off it entirely, which is tragic, in our opinion. What Ellen needs is a really good English teacher (Or a Shmoopologist) to help guide her through Hardy's intricacies, because Tess is a darn good book.

    "My English teacher spent the whole semester making us read books and plays that she never wanted to discuss properly. Thinking for her was a waste of time."

    Dad asks for examples, and I give him a little tirade about reading Ethan Frome and then never talking about repressed sexual desire. The absurdity of reading The Crucible and acting like it can only be about Communists in the 1950s.

    "It is about Communists in the 1950s," Dad says as if he is going to have to explain McCarthyism to me.

    "That's how it was written," I say, "but there's no reason why it can't be read with the plight of gay people coming to mind." (16.12-15)

    Do we think that Ellen is saying this just to get a rise out of her dad? Obviously, anyone can interpret works of literature in their own way (that's what makes it so much fun), and the idea of a "witch hunt" out to persecute gay people isn't that far off.

    "What is this about?" I ask Dad one night, picking up volume two. It is so long I cannot imagine that there is an end that can be described as either happy or true.

    "A lost world," he says. "A life just out of reach."

    This is fitting, since I think his finishing it will remain forever out of reach. I would venture that its length and difficulty are why he is reading it in the first place. But of course I don't know if that is, in fact, true. Dad learned French, Latin, and Italian in college, but he taught himself German. Was it to read this book? Why not read a three-volume book in French? I leave the study. Suppose he answered all my questions. I still wouldn't discover what the quality is of his mind's heartbeat. Which is what I am really asking with my questions about his reading habits. (17.44-46)

    Dad's dogged determination to read a book that is so difficult is fascinating. Is he doing it to prove a point? To stimulate his brain and somehow avoid the stagnancy of parenthood? Is it a form of punishment? Ellen's right in thinking that if she could just figure out his motivations, she would know her father much better.

  • Society

    Faggot is one of the many words that I know are used instead of the pleasant-sounding gay, whose definition has totally eluded me tonight. There are a bunch of these words: queer, queen, fairy. How come I know this awful list and not very much else about what gay means? (6.68)

    What does it say about our society when marginalized groups are known more by their derogatory slang than their actual identity? Or does this statement make this book dated because that kind of ignorance would be surprising in today's era of awareness?

    Michelangelo was gay. Oscar Wilde went to prison for being gay (he died in Paris) but was married and had children. It used to be against the law for men to have sex with each
    other. People got arrested, lost their jobs, were abandoned by their friends, were put in mental homes, or killed themselves. A math genius who helped Britain beat the Nazis was rewarded by losing his security clearance when the government found out he was gay.

    Society has always feared those who are different, and though it's come a long way since Oscar Wilde's imprisonment, gay people still face a considerable amount of discrimination.

    Now it's not a big deal. There's AIDS to worry about or getting attacked by a redneck, but that's about it. Only people who don't know better still think it's shameful or wrong to be gay, but not people we know. Not smart people. Which makes me think there's something seriously wrong with Link. Why the nuclear meltdown at my asking if he and James were a couple? James said Link was afraid. Afraid of what? Link's too smart to think like the people I've read about. The religious zealots and other people who don't know better. (7.7)

    Did you read this passage and cringe? To think that being gay is no big deal is pretty dismissive of something that probably feels pretty darn "big" to the person who is struggling to figure it out. We are going to be generous, though, and chalk this up to Ellen's naïveté.

    People used to think that being gay was a mental illness, but doctors (especially psychiatrists) no longer believe that. Even if Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth aren't fit to be parents, I've never heard Mom call them stupid. I ask James if his parents know that reasonable people don't think being gay is a mental illness.

    "They do know," he says. "They send me so I can make my own choices without being influenced by their deep desire that I be straight."

    "Why is that their desire?"

    "Because no one wants their kid to be gay."

    "Mom doesn't care," I say.

    "Your mother may not, but check with your father," James says.

    It's interesting that James knows more about how Ellen's parents will react than she does. Is it because he's more mature? Because he's had more time to think about it? And why do you think he says that no parent would want their kid to be gay?

    "Why would Dad care?" I ask, reluctant to reveal that he does. "It's not against the law anymore."

    "No one gets arrested anymore," he says. "But it's not exactly legal."

    "All those laws were overturned," I say. "So it is legal."

    "Ellen, there are a ton of laws that no one wants to admit exist," James says. "Laws that monitor behavior."

    I think of Newland in The Age of Innocence and how he was kept from his every desire by what society expected. How it was all unspoken but clear.

    "You mean social laws?" I ask.

    "Yes," James says. "They're unwritten laws, so they never get overturned, but everyone is expected to obey them."

    "What happens if you refuse to?" I ask, wondering if that's why my old school used to send notes home. Perhaps my "failure to connect" disobeyed an unwritten social law.

    It's interesting that all of this needs to be spelled out so explicitly for Ellen. She has a particularly hard time picking up on social cues, at least compared to normal teens, so James has to explain why being gay is so taboo.

    I have, of course, missed learning about these particular laws in my reading. No one writes them down because that would involve admitting they exist. Everyone has to learn what they are and how to cope with them in their own way. The unwritten social laws about gay people might be ones that Dad, despite being smart and someone I know, obeys. And he probably wants us to obey them as well. The way he wants us to obey his laws about our minds and their heartbeats. (7.63)

    All of these revelations seem a bit obvious, don't they? Many of these social cues are something that people naturally pick up on—hence the largely inherited nature of bigotry and prejudice—so the fact that Ellen has to really puzzle over all of this makes her seem a bit innocent about the ways of the world.

    What was it like to be Link hearing just how badly Dad wants him to obey those laws that no one will write down? What was it like to be Dad wanting that so badly? I try to look at them as if they are strangers. As if I could ever understand them. I try and I fail. (13.57)

    Just because social rules exist doesn't mean that they are right. Finally, Ellen is seeing the importance of these "laws" as they apply to her. Link is suffering because their dad rigidly adheres to these prejudices, believing they are best for his family. Suddenly Ellen sees that even though her father is one of the smartest people she knows, he's not always right.

    "Like most minorities, gay people are forced to live outside the mainstream of society," Dad says.

    "That's ridiculous," I say. "Lots of famous people are gay." Of course, right at this moment the only famous gay people I can think of are dead.

    "Famous is not the issue," Dad says. "It's that by virtue of being different from the majority, gay people find themselves outside. In life's margins, if you will. From there, they are able to make unique observations. Most art—dance, music, poetry, what have you—is an expressed observation." (16.32-34)

    This is one of the ways in which our story, as lovely as it is, can be a bit dated. Yes, often times gay people are marginalized in ways that are both obvious and invisible, but in our country today this is gradually becoming less true.

    Perhaps my father is not so clueless after all. It's only by being forced to navigate (as opposed to simply obeying) society's unwritten laws that you realize they exist. And that allows you –forces you—to look at things differently from the way people who follow the laws without much, if any, thought look at things. (16.35)

    Ellen is finally catching on. The reason she never picked up on those social rules was because they didn't apply to her. Now that she has a reason to try to navigate the unwritten laws surrounding homosexuality, she has more awareness than those who continue living their lives blissfully ignorant.

    "What makes you care so much about Link?" I ask. "Don't you want him to have a unique perspective?"

    "Your brother is not gay," Dad says.

    "We don't know that," I say, thinking how the more I hear Dad and Link say he is not gay, the less I believe it. "He doesn't even know. You're afraid he is. Why?"

    "Link is endlessly talented," Dad says. "He's crawling with potential. While the margins may afford certain observations, it is also a limited way to live. I want your brother's life to be limitless." (16.36-39)

    Dad doesn't even see how hypocritical he is being with that last statement, but it's a doozy. He doesn't want to limit Link's possibilities, and yet he is blatantly placing limits on who he is should love. Oops.

  • Coming of Age

    When I was little we used to sleep in each other's rooms the night before all special occasions: Christmas, trips to Europe, first days of school, and birthdays. We stopped when I was nine or ten. I don't remember which one of us decided we were too old or if anything was said. It just stopped. Special occasions now come and go without our marking it by sleeping in the same room. (1.35)

    Sometimes getting older can feel bittersweet and melancholy. Like, it's a bit sad that they don't celebrate special occasions with sleepovers anymore. It feels like a missed opportunity for them to continue getting to know each other as they mature into early adulthood.

    Mom and I have radically different ideas about what looks good on me. We spend almost four hours buying five dresses, three of which I will never wear, four skirts, three pairs of pants, two pairs of jeans, four sweaters, and seven tops. Mom says I am impossible to shop for because I am too tall for things that should fit. That and the fact that she still thinks I am nine. She vetoed every short skirt I wanted, and the only tops we could agree on without a fight have little collars and button up to my chin. Ugh. (5.4)

    Show us a girl who says she hasn't gone through this with their mom, and we will show you a girl who is lying to your face. This is the age-old struggle between moms and daughters (or dads and daughters, whoever happens to be holding the purse strings when back-to-school shopping comes around again).

    How is it that my father, whom I think I know so well, has picked the wrong—the ignorant—laws to follow? How would Link—how would I—ever follow laws different from Dad's if his are the ones we learn first? (7.67)

    This is one of the toughest parts of growing up. There comes a time when you have to decide to disagree with your parents—who up until that point have seemed infallible and omniscient. It is a sign that you are coming-of-age when you can finally see your parents for who they are as flawed adults rather than the superheroes you grew up with.

    I had a growth spurt in the seventh grade: four and a quarter inches in five months. I went from being average height to two inches shy of the six feet I currently am. My hips hurt, I slept a lot, and I only had one pair of pants which fit, but other than that there was no obvious change. I saw myself every day. There was no way to notice how tall I was until I went to the pediatrician and she said, "Ellen, you've gotten really big." (9.1)

    Ugh, the teenage years are tough. Isn't it funny how hard it is to see changes in yourself simply because you are too familiar?

    I settle into the kitchen and confront my school books. Thanks to my various reading projects (Wuthering Heights, books about art, and books about sexual identity), I am hopelessly behind in all of my classes. I will manage a B minus in French and chemistry. English will totally depend on the essay question. History and math are beyond the pale. I give them up as lost, figuring that the worst that can happen is for Dad to realize that he is more than one step behind who I am. This is something I have, in fact, wished for. My exams will reveal a truer picture of the girl my parents think they know. (10.47)

    What is it about Link and Ellen that they keep hoping their tests will somehow reveal their true selves to their parents? Has their communication shut down to such a degree that her parents are now forced to guess at how their kids feel based on the grades that they get? Would that ever be accurate or fair?

    We are sprawled across his bed, surrounded by drafts of his essay. I know that if James were somebody else, I would not fearlessly lie around on a bed with him. It amazes me how I have turned into a girl who worries about sex. Both having it and not having it. Less than a year ago, I was a girl bringing home notes that detailed my inability to socialize. And now James and I navigate around each other's bodies, trying to establish boundaries even as we erase them. (10.57)

    Ellen has certainly come a long way from the Ellen of yesteryear, but probably not as much as she thinks. She's no social butterfly, she's just obsessed with James, and although that has broken down several barriers, she still has a long way to go before she should start patting her own back for her social skills.

    Without any warning, the dinner hour (which suddenly reemerges the night of the recital) morphs into a family meeting. This is the new drill: Link is sixteen years old and lives at home. They respect his maturity and growing autonomy, but in the end, as long as he lives under their roof, he will comply with their authority. He will see a shrink.

    "You can do as you please with your exams," Mom says. "But you cannot do as you please with your life. Not while I still have a say in it." (15.4-5)

    It wouldn't be coming-of-age if there weren't some battle for autonomy involved. It's normal for parents and teens to battle about new boundaries regarding who is in charge, and we think in this case they've done an admirable job of hashing it out.

    If I were not afraid of Adena and what I envision she knows, I would pull her aside and ask if it is normal to be in love with someone who has made up his mind that sex will not happen. Not, repeat, not. I would ask her if I missed the class when they explained love and sex. Was I reading through that bit? How else would I know so little about what makes the body—mine and his—tremble, leak, and break open? How can there be no written laws—none at all—about how to love someone? And how come the only laws I can find written down about how to have sex concern not getting pregnant or caught or dead? (18.2)

    This is yet another example of why communication within a family is so dang important. Ellen's parents should be the ones teaching her about sex and love (not the particulars, mind you, because ew, but you know, the basics). That, and she needs some girlfriends stat. That's where you get the good stuff on love and sex and everything else when you're a teenager exploring these domains for the first time.

    I guess what happens now is because neither of us wants to say anything or cry in front of the other. It hurts a little, but not as much as the books say. There's not even a tearing feeling, more a feeling of oh, how unusual, until oh, this is it. It's nothing like drawing. I don't feel pulled into another place. I am here, finally here. I belong, completely and totally, to this particular beautiful face.

    And then it's over. In less than four months I'll turn fifteen, but this will loom larger in my mind, I think. (20.20-21)

    Losing your virginity has become something of a rite of passage for American teens, and we think the fact that Ellen's not disappointed, hurt, or confused is a major win for her. It's no surprise that this event will feel more important than her birthday; after all, you can only lose your virginity once.

    It will be amazing in the way that girl walking through the park is. I see her in her hideous green skirt, acting as if her mind isn't beating with what her body knows. Although I'm still in the process of meeting her, I've already decided to like her.

    Not because she's curious, careful, kind, and intense. But because she's let somebody else discover that about her and love her for it. (20.58-59)

    Compare this confident, glowing young woman to the cautious, quiet Ellen from the beginning of the book and you can see how much she's matured over the course of less than a year.

  • Love

    "When you grow out of it, you will break my heart," he said. Almost two years later, and I'm still totally madly in love with James, but I'm more used to it. (1.6)

    When does a crush become love? Does it correlate to a certain age or is it longevity? Is it the depth of emotion? What do you think, does Ellen love James or is she just enamored with him?

    He should have asked you to go," Link says. "You would have gone with him."

    "I might," I say. Probably. Sure. No doubt about it.

    "You would," my brother says. "You would follow James to the moon." (1.54-56)

    Love makes you do strange things and blind devotion is one of its more common side effects. Does this quote contain a hint of jealousy from Link, though?

    I lie awake for a long time. For hours after Link has drifted off to sleep. I listen for and I hear James returning to the house. It is true I would follow James to the moon. But if Link would let me, I would follow him anywhere he wanted. (1.62)

    Ellen adores her brother. Maybe if he weren't so surly and distant, he would realize that Ellen worships him almost as much as she admires James (it not more). Later on, James openly discusses how his flirtations with Ellen were redirected tokens of affection for Link; she was just the safer recipient. How much of her affection for James do you think might be redirected admiration for Link?

    "I don't know if your brother is gay," Mom says, pouring milk into the bottom of her cup. "It's clear to me he and James love each other. Link seems happy more often than not."

    For this we had to get tea and cake?

    "They are both very young," Mom says. "I'm not sure they know." (5.14-16)

    Here's a question for the ages: When is someone old enough to know they are in love? Is there a certain age you have to reach in order for love to count (for lack of a better word)?

    "I'm not an expert," he says, "but I don't think sex is the thing that makes someone gay."

    "What does?"

    "It's more whom you love," James says. "The how and why of it. And if what you get back is worth what you give up."

    What is he talking about? (6.20-23)

    James might not be an expert, but we think he has a pretty good idea of what's going on. There's no one thing that makes someone gay, but seeing as sex and love often go hand in hand, he's at least headed in the right direction.

    "But you love Link," I say to remind myself that when compared with Link, my qualities are irrelevant.

    "It's hard to love Link," James says. "It's not something he encourages."

    "He loves you," I say, no longer as sure about that as I was an hour ago.

    "He has no clue what he feels," James says. "About me or math or college. Anything."

    James is right (again), but we think that just because Link isn't sure about his emotions doesn't mean he doesn't feel them (you still with us?). Link loves James, for sure, but he's conflicted about what it means to love him.

    "I asked Link what was the point of not letting someone love me. You know, someone who would let me love him. Could he give me one good reason not to go out with this guy? And your brother said, 'You have Ellen. Ellen loves you.'"

    Oof, that was a bit unfair of Link. How does Ellen's love negate James's ability to date other people? Should he be held accountable for her schoolgirl crush? Was Ellen just a stand-in for himself when he says that?

    When I am with James, I feel way more drunk from the kissing than I felt from the Sambuca I had that night. I am reckless with affection. Physical affection. As if I can make up for what my brother would not offer. As if I could kiss away any unhappy moment James has ever had. James says he will not sleep with me. Not, repeat, not. It is too soon. We have moved really fast, he says, because of the unusual way we became friends. He will not take advantage of that. Not with me. This is what he says. It is not always what he does, and I stay in my fog of kissing and touching. Of not kissing and not touching. (10.50)

    Ellen is a bit starved for affection, so we can't blame her for unleashing the floodgates. We also can't blame James for feeling like he needs to pump the breaks a little bit.

    As if James will let Link back without irrevocably forcing every issue under the sun. But he might. I don't know what it would mean for me, but I don't want to be with James if he'd rather have Link. Not true: I want to be with James no matter whom he loves more. Except that I would feel yucky, I would feel second best being with James if he wanted Link back. If they can deal with each other, they should have a fresh chance to choose. (14.27)

    These are really mature thoughts for Ellen to have, especially when she's in the throes of new love. No one wants to be second best, and she's brave to volunteer to back down if Link had decided he was ready to restart their relationship.

    "Let me guess," James asks. "They're still afraid you're gay."

    So that's what it is. Fear. Dad's afraid Link's gay, and Mom's afraid Dad will be or already is handling it badly. It's not that either of them knows. They can't know anything for sure about Link. But the fear is everywhere. I do admire Mom, but I love James for saying clearly and fearlessly what is going on. I look to Link, who does not love clear and fearless speech nearly as much. (14.62-63)

    So much fear surrounding love. Can love exist in a fear vacuum? Ooh, what would a fear vacuum even look like?

    I watch expressions rush into Link's face, which makes it mysterious and beautiful. He is shy, thrilled, delighted, furious, ashamed, and frightened. Maybe he's not gay, but he loves James. I wish that loving James made Link as happy as it makes me. I wish I knew why it didn't. I look at Link's newly mysterious and beautiful face and think, There's nothing I wouldn't do for you.
    Perhaps I love Link more than I can imagine loving James. More than Mr. Rochester loved Jane. The question that presents itself is what am I going to do about it? I am learning how to love James. Can I learn how best to love my brother? (14.89)

    You would think that loving someone would come naturally, but Ellen is pretty awesome for figuring out that sometimes people need to be loved differently, and it's not always how you would like to be loved yourself. It's a bummer, though, that she's stuck feeling like loving Link and James is such an either/or situation.

    I wonder if without me—without their useless insurance—they would shed their new armor. If I could make this happen, would it be the right way to love Link or just the wrong way to love James? (14.103)

    Oof. Now Ellen's really stuck. By backing out to give them space, she might be giving Link the freedom to explore his feelings for James—but she would also be ignoring what James has already told her, which is that Link makes it too hard for him to love him. There's really no way for everyone to win in this situation.

  • Isolation

    I never request anything, of course. I think half the reason the two of them let me spend so much time in their company is that they forget I'm there. It's why I have to hide just how much I am totally madly in love with James. It makes them notice me. And that makes them more careful around me, which is not what I want. (2.40)

    Ellen is much more comfortable lurking in the shadows and observing than she is actually participating in anything, but that has to get lonely after a while, right? Eventually everyone needs a little attention.

    Mom and Dad were always getting letters from my teachers and having to go in for special conferences. "Ellen exhibits," the school said, "an unwillingness to form any firm social attachments. There is a consistent failure on Ellen's part to connect with or thrive in any of the many groups which make themselves available to her." (3.38)

    Ellen is a total introvert, which is a fine thing to be, but she borders on being antisocial. It's not surprising that school administrators have been worried about her self-imposed outcast status, but she seems to get all the social fulfillment she needs from her times tagging along with James and Link.

    For me to go through the agonizing process of getting into a conversation with someone I don't know, it has to be worth it. One of the things I love best about my brother and James is that everything is worth it to them. They can spend an hour talking about whether or not to wear their khaki pants cuffed or hanging over the backs of their shoes. And they can make it sound as if the fate of the world depends on what they do with the hems of their pants. It's just their way. (3.40)

    What Ellen has yet to understand is that if she just got over that initial hurdle, she could make friends of her own who also placed unnecessary importance on trivial matters. It's a bit sad how she finds socializing to be so painful and scary.

    My face hurts from smiling at so many people I don't know. The kids in my class are really friendly. Everyone wants to know everything about everybody else. It's completely terrifying, but I manage to meet everyone without having to know anybody. The trick with school is staying out of people's way. This works pretty well most of the time. At my old school it was only from the grownups that I got attention solely by trying to avoid it. (4.1)

    If everyone is so friendly and nice, why is she so scared? Why is she so afraid to know anyone outside of her family? And what is it about attention that is so awful?

    I don't sit with Adena and Laurel to make conversation, but to avoid the attention that comes when you sit by yourself during lunch. (4.13)

    At this point, Ellen's attempts to avoid any attention whatsoever reek of desperation. What gives? This is much more than just being introverted.

    "It's not your wanting to be with him that he minds," James says. "It's your demanding to know him."

    Perhaps people have their own personal unwritten laws in addition to the social ones. And one of Link's laws could be that no one is allowed to know him well. In which case both James and I have broken it. Tried to, at least. The punishment for our efforts to know Link seems clear enough: banishment. If I have to choose, I would rather be with my brother than know him.

    All of our characters have self-isolating tendencies: James loves to draw but won't show anyone; Ellen would rather commit seppuku than have anyone pay her attention; and Link banishes anyone who attempts to get to know him. What are they afraid of?

    We are sprawled across his bed, surrounded by drafts of his essay. I know that if James were somebody else, I would not fearlessly lie around on a bed with him. It amazes me how I have turned into a girl who worries about sex. Both having it and not having it. Less than a year ago, I was a girl bringing home notes that detailed my inability to socialize. And now James and I navigate around each other's bodies, trying to establish boundaries even as we erase them. (10.57)

    Ellen thinks her relationship with James is symbolic of her triumph over antisocial tendencies, but is she really any more social than before? She has opened up to James, yes, but he is only one person, plus her revelations to him are more physical than emotional.

    "Watching Mom be afraid of Link is harder than smiling at strangers."

    I remember my first day at Cedar Hill and how tired and nervous it made me to smile at everyone. I now feel more tired and nervous in my own home. (12.7-8)

    School and it's requisite socializing can be really hard on introverts. Walking on eggshells in your own home can be equally exhausting.

    It occurs to me that the person who has taught me the most about the art of evasive language and behavior is neither of my skilled parents but by brother. How strange that we should have this crucial bit in common and yet be so different. So separate. (14.15)

    Is it that strange? If the trait they share is evasive maneuvers, then maybe they're just too good at evading each other. If they were to open up to each other and stop dodging the other's attention, maybe they would realize they aren't alone.

    I feel less concerned about attention. You can hardly hand your drawings out, asking for feedback, and not expect—not want—attention in one form or another. […] They are easier to be around, now that avoiding them isn't a top priority. Learning to look at people—to imagine who they are, what they own, and why—has given me an ability to endure the possibility that I am being looked at. (17.27)

    Ah-ha. Now that she's finally stopped avoiding attention at all costs, Ellen realizes that it's not that bad. This is a major step forward for Ellen because it shows how much self-esteem she's gained in her year out from under Link's shadow.

    What I want to remember is all the afternoons we spent in hospital cafeterias and airport lounges. How we had full but silent conversations. On lonely days, I'll want to remember that even if no one knows anyone, James made me feel known. And if it happened once, it could happen again. Just like having sex, this time more slowly and deliberately, as if we are memorizing what it was like the first time. (20.53)

    Ellen has finally realized that it's not ideal to always be alone in a state of perpetual self-isolation. What James has shown her is that revealing yourself to someone else and having them love you can feel really good. More importantly, though, by revealing herself to James, Ellen has gotten to know herself better, too.