Love, Sex & Feminism (or not?) in Lauren Myracle's The Infinite Moment of Us
I wasn’t planning on writing about Lauren Myracle’s The Infinite Moment of Us.
When I first picked it up, I only waded through three chapters before deciding it wasn’t for me. Then, glowing reviews piled up, and I thought that maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for this novel and gave it another shot. I slogged through all but the last couple chapters before abandoning the novel again. Finally, after chatting with Laura about the numerous aspects of The Infinite Moment of Us that frustrated and disappointed me, and deciding that my aggravations were probably worth noting on CEFS, I forced myself to finish those last chapters.
The Infinite Moment of Us is written in the popular dual narrative style from the point of view of recent high school graduates Wren Gray and Charlie Parker. Wren is a classic over-achieving people-pleaser, headed for a good college and a future her parents approve of. Except she comes to the realization that pleasing her parents means letting herself down by ignoring her own dreams. She’s also been accepted into an outreach-type program in Guatemala and wants to take a gap year and pursue that rather than start college immediately. The disappointment from her parents about this decision, however, is an overwhelming burden.
Charlie comes from a difficult background, having bounced around the foster system. He’s surrounded by a cast of troubled young people, including an ex-girlfriend with problems in spades and a foster brother with a disability. Charlie’s self-identity is kind of a mess, as he sees himself as not worthy of what he wants, including Wren.
Over that one summer, the two find each other, fall in love and confront their desires. Myracle does this with frank language related to Wren and Charlie’s physical relationship and doesn’t fade to black as is often (though not always) the case in young adult fiction.
On paper, The Infinite Moment of Us sounds like a novel that’s I’d adore. I love interesting, mature YA romance and many of my favorite reads fit that description. I also want to see more diversity of after high school paths portrayed in fiction for teens, which The Infinite Moment of Us tackles explicitly. And, I am a firm believer in the importance of healthy, positive portrayals of sex and sexuality.
Unfortunately, none of the promised elements came together, making The Infinite Moment of Us one of my more disappointing reads in a long time. This is largely because I cannot stop lingering on the problematic way the sexual relationship between Wren and Charlie develops.
The publisher chose to add a letter from the author to the beginning of review copies of the book, which includes the following message (it was also posted on the author’s website, so I assume it was intended as a general notice to all of the book’s readers, not just reviewers),
Something else I should share: This book has sex in it. It’s not about sex, not exclusively, and I’m more interested in the mingling of Charlie’s and Wren’s souls than in the ways their bodies come together. But Charlie and Wren are eighteen, and their souls are housed in their bodies, and guess what? Their bodies are pretty awesome. (Charlie, I can tell you, is frickin’ gorgeous.) So, yeah, sex is part of the mix, and I trust that you, and teen readers, can handle it. A fellow writer recently said to me, “I would never want to write a young adult novel that I couldn’t comfortably hand to a twelve-year-old.” Well, I would. I do not ever want to underestimate my readers’ ability to take on “content”—and good Lord, what would we do if books didn’t have content! “Here you go, here’s a book with nothing in it. Enjoy!”
With the inclusion this message the author establishes a false dichotomy of what constitutes a substantive book, and that cloud followed me throughout my reading of the novel.
Is Myracle contending that her book is better and more substantive because she describes sex in detail (though unrealistically, but I’ll get to that later)? That writers who don’t take their stories in that direction don’t have “content”? I could continue, but you get my point. It’s a troubling statement that reminded me of the discussion in the online book community earlier this year which debated whether or not YA authors have a duty to consider the sex lives of their teenage characters—a debate I found… in need of nuance.
For me, the inclusion of this disclaimer effectively constructed a false barrier to criticism of the book’s handling of teen sex.
And because that’s where much of my criticism of the book rests, I’ve wrestled with discomfort in tackling The Infinite Moment of Us.
[Warning: Spoilers are discussed ahead. Sorry.]
Wren and Charlie have something of a whirlwind romance, with the intensity that often characterizes young love. In the course of the relationship, Wren decides that she wants to have sex with Charlie. Now, I’m all for the portraying girls having desires, just as boys do. For a long time (though I think it’s changed somewhat), YA tended to ignore this facet of teenage girls’ lives, and that’s a disservice to them. Girls deserve to be portrayed as whole people, and YA as a category has an opportunity to shift these depictions in an important way. However, the execution of this storyline baffled me.
It’s been referred to as “feminist” by many, many people, but it simply did not meet my definition of feminism.
For example, Wren makes the decision that it’s time that she and Charlie have sex, goes on birth control pills and then effectively announces to Charlie that they’re going to have sex without condoms, that he needs to get tested for sexually-transmitted infections (which is a good thing—don’t get me wrong), making the assumption that he will want all these things, because Wren believes (correctly, but that doesn’t make the presentation of this plot point any less troubling) that Charlie had sex with his previous girlfriend (who is a ridiculous caricature of a promiscuous, mentally-ill, troubled girl—a disturbing storyline in and of itself).
My assumption is that Myracle is trying to subvert the sexually aggressive alpha male archetype by assigning this behavioral pattern to the female character. Wren calling all the shots and removing Charlie’s agency by deciding that her desires must be his desires too, is as problematic to me as a male character doing the same with regard to his female partner. The assumptions in play do nothing more than feed the stereotype that men are always sexually available.
This isn't feminism, it's something else entirely.
To meet my definition of feminism (and I can’t and won't speak for anyone’s definition by my own), the progression of this aspect of Wren and Charlie’s relationship would have involved some type of equitable depiction, including both individuals’ desires, what each is comfortable with (apparently because Charlie is so overwhelmed with love for Wren, he’s completely okay with assuming that Wren is using her birth control pills 100 percent correctly all the time), akin to the wonderful portrayal of this experience in Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door. In that book, those decisions were both sweetly romantic (a tone which is attempted, quite unsuccessfully, in this book) and respectful of and true to the characters, what each wants and their growing closeness.
Something I frequently critique in adult fiction is the strange anti-condom narrative that populates the romance genre. I was disturbed by this undertone inexplicably appearing as a significant narrative in The Infinite Moment of Us.
“I went on the pill.”
Wren laughed again, still nervous but not as nervous. Also, she was delighted by his stunned-in-a-good-way reaction. “And . . . you need to be tested.”
“I do?” She unfolded her legs and perched on her knees. “I don’t want my first time to be with a condom unless we have to,” she whispered. “Just you and me—that’s what I want.”
“Us,” Charlie said. “Us,” she agreed.
The author goes out of her way to be clear, as I mentioned, that Charlie gets tested for STIs; conveniently places his last sexual experience outside the typical STI incubation window; and makes it clear that Charlie was vaccinated for HPV. However, this detail was a strange and dangerous narrative wholly unnecessary to these characters’ story. This is one of those instances where I simply cannot remove reality from fiction. I don’t expect fiction to send a message and I don’t expect fictional characters to be perfect, but I simply don’t understand why the author had to take this story in that direction.
Is the implication that Wren and Charlie’s love is so pure that it shouldn’t be tainted by a physical barrier? This is a convention that pops up in adult romance with some regularity, and it always disturbs me, and I refuse to hold YA fiction to a lower standard than novels written for adults.
Again, I kept comparing this aspect of The Infinite Moment of Us to the way similar events unfolded in My Life Next Door, in which the reader is inside the female main character’s head as she considers birth control options, and the characters (quite humorously) go condom shopping on the page. I would have loved to have seen more of this on the page in The Infinite Moment of Us, but all we get is Charlie musing how much he loves that Wren went on the pill “for him.”
But given Wren’s decision to go on the pill (he still marveled that she’d done that, and for him), he suspected that Wren had told Tessa that she expected her first time to happen soon.
When that first time comes (in the couple’s special ditch, of course), I appreciated that Myracle doesn’t flinch away from the details, because YA definitely needs more frankness. (Though there are authors who’ve been doing this for some time, for the record.) However, the portrayal had much in common with schlocky romance novels (note: I am not saying all romance novels are schlocky, but there’s a type that definitely swings in that direction.) Wren, while inexperienced, suddenly becomes confident and adept at oral sex. Charlie is such a wonder that Wren’s first sexual experience is mind-blowing.
One could argue that all of this perfection in their experience is more about how the characters felt, as opposed to the reality, but the distancing third person point-of-view doesn’t allow the reader to know that—we only know what we’re told and have no choice other than to accept their experiences as what actually happened, not the characters’ perception.
This final frustrating element clarified for me my frustration around The Infinite Moment of Us: It’s been marketed as an “important” book having the significance of Judy Blume’s Forever. It's been referenced as “literary.”
And yet, as the elements come together around Wren and Charlie’s story, I simply didn’t buy that it’s any of those things.
When boiled down to its essence, The Infinite Moment of Us has more in common with Katie McGarry’s Pushing the limits, with its overly-dramatic writing (including a bafflingly long description involving a demi-style bra), bizarre resolution complete with a stereotypical ex-girlfriend, and overwrought love story that pales in comparison to the truly excellent YA romances on the market. This leaves the novel in a strange netherworld of being neither what it aspires to be (literary, significant) nor what it could be (a memorable teen romance).
Charlie felt like he was in a bind. He also couldn’t help but wonder: If a woman loved a man, couldn’t she find a way to be with that man? Instead of Charlie going to Guatemala to be with Wren, couldn’t Wren stay in Atlanta to be with him?
Wren sighed and broke off eye contact. Charlie knew he needed to catch her now, before she slipped away from him.
“Wren, I love you to infinity and back. You’re the love of my life. You know that, right?”
Wren sighed again.
“And you do make me feel like a man,” he said. “No one makes me feel like you do.”
“I’m glad,” she said.
“I am, too,” he said.
“But, Charlie, you are a man.” She turned her head and looked at him. “I’m glad I make you feel that way, but it’s not me. It’s you. You are a man, and not just a man, but my man. I need you.”
“I need you, too, baby,” he said, worried that she didn’t fully grasp the truth of that.
“And also, I just plain want you,” she said. “Don’t you want me? Don’t you want to be with me?”
I applaud Myracle for attempting to write a sex-positive YA romance that doesn’t shirk from the details of the couple’s physical relationship. I appreciate the ambition, but wish it had been successful in accomplishing that goal.
As it stands, there are other books which achieve this much more effectively. I recommend readers check out Jennifer Echols’ novels (Such a Rush is one of my favorites, and addresses similar class issues to this novel, but more effectively), Kirsty Eagar’s Raw Blue, Trish Doller’s upcoming Where the Stars Still Shine or My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick. All explore the nuance of teenage sexual relationships in a layered and meaningful manner that far exceeds that of The Infinite Moment of Us.
Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.