"I believe so." It was a vague enough answer, devoid of any hard information, yet when Marigold heard it, her mother's heart had given a small leap of joy—perhaps Lonnie would be all right after all. Perhaps he was—as Marigold had been telling everyone for years—simply a slow developer, one of those people who matured late, who […] eventually found themselves and dazzled everyone. (3.5)
One thing that makes Lonnie's storyline especially powerful is that we get to see the way his mom reacts to his immaturity and difficulty making decisions. It's clear that she worries about him, but also that she worries about how others perceive him as well. As it turns out, there's no need to worry; with Clara's help, Lonnie comes of age and discovers who he's meant to be.
[Her father'd] kept on nagging and trying to boss her around. Clara didn't have to take it. She had her scholarship—she didn't have to live at home. She had left. There was nothing to it; you simply tossed your clothes in a bag and walked straight out the door. Easy. (4.12)
Maybe you're older and know the feeling of freedom that comes with moving out of your parents' house, or maybe you're still in high school and it seems like a long way away. Regardless, as Clara learns, leaving home, especially under her adverse conditions, isn't always so "easy." Part of coming of age is that although we may think we can make it all on our own, we eventually begin to miss the security of home.
Fall in love, thought Lily suddenly. Tracy and Lizzie and Lara were always in love with someone or about to be or falling out of love, hopeful and eager, then radiant and happy, then crying, then hopeful all over again. What could be less sensible than that? (6.22)
We here at Shmoop would argue that being a teenager girl has a ton of insensibilities, but in a way, they're rites of passage young women must go through to learn hard lessons about love and life. In Lily's case, it eventually leads her to the knowledge that love isn't always insensible. In fact, it ends up being just what she needs.
"When I was your age, I'd been pounding a copper's beat for four bloody years."
"Yeah, I know, Pop, but—"
"It was a different world then, Pop." There was a kind of lazy patronage in Lonnie's voice, as if the world Stan had struggled through back in his own youth was simple and uncomplicated, a kindergarten sort of place. (7.35-38)
Here, we see that Lonnie is kind of dismissive of Pop's hard-working background. Part of Lonnie's coming of age experience is finding respect for his grandfather and forgiving him of his judgments against him.
Carol Dewey was the most beautiful girl in Year Ten—tall and slender, with a creamy complexion, features that were very nearly perfect, and long wavy corn-silk hair. There was nothing the least bit wrong with her except, now that she'd asked this question, the eyes of almost all the Year Ten girls swept up and down her searching eagerly for some flaw. (16.46)
Being a teenager is hard. So while Tracy Gilman may be the only one who's mean enough to actually criticize Carol out loud, this doesn't mean that the other girls aren't secretly trying to build themselves up by tearing someone else down, too. These years are filled with comparisons.
Rose right hand rose protectively against her heart. The young were so hard, she thought. They saw everything so sharply, like—like traffic lights: red meant stop and green meant go and the amber one they had no patience with. (18.26)
Like Marigold's feelings for Lonnie, Rose's observations of Clara's generation offer some important insights about the way the younger characters approach life. In this case, Rose describes youth as a lack of patience and a giving in to strictly defined rules of what's good and bad. As Rose has aged and dealt with Charlie's issues, it's obvious that she's learned there's room for middle ground.
You didn't have to be particularly sensitive for stuff like that to keep you awake at night, thought Lily, once you started thinking about it. Particularly if you had a crush on someone, because having a crush made you feel vulnerable, and even more vulnerable if the person you had a crush on didn't know you existed. (19.1)
Why is it that liking a guy (or a girl) makes teenagers feel "vulnerable"? For Lily, it seems to be the fear of rejection. Rejection to her would be confirmation that everything she thinks about herself—smelling like dishwater, having a loony family, being physically unattractive—is true. Thankfully, Daniel Steadman turns those expectations and beliefs upside down.
She waved, and when Lonnie and Clara failed to notice her, Jessaline didn't feel the least bit neglected, as she might have only a few short weeks earlier. Once you got a life, reflected Jessaline, you didn't have time to feel touchy or paranoid. "Once you get a life," she hummed, " a life, a life." (22.2)
While Lonnie's wandered through life without a particular direction, Jessaline's operated at the other extreme: living according to her parents' expectations. When she decides to change her major and operate by her own rules, though, she experiences a kind of freedom she's never felt before. It's a sobering thought that this is probably the happiest Jessaline has ever been in her life.
"I'm sorry," [Lonnie] said simply. "I'm sorry I act useless."
Lily could hardly believe it. He'd never said, "Sorry" in his life. Not to her, anyway, not… meaning it. Standing there in the middle of the small, clean room, she thought he looked different. (33.53-54)
One of the coolest things Clarke does with character development in this book is allowing us to witness Lonnie's transformation as a result of his relationship with Clara. Often, these moments are most rewarding when we see them through the eyes of someone who's been critical of him—like his sister. Lily's shock that Lonnie has the guts to apologize for something confirms for us that real change is taking place.
"Sir, what would you do if a grandchild of yours was planning to get married to, um, someone of another race?"
"I'd pin her ears back!" roared Stan. "If any granddaughter of mine tried marrying anyone, when she's only sixteen and hasn't finished school!" (34.64-65)
Lily might be prank calling Pop to get an answer about how he'll feel about Lonnie and Clara's engagement, but she's not aware that he already knows that (1) it's her on the phone, and (2) Clara and Lonnie are a thing. Still, nothing screams being a teenager like making a phony phone call.