Uses for Boys
by Erica Lorraine Scheidt
Original Publication Date: January 15, 2013
Length: 240 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
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Anna remembers a time before boys, when she was little and everything made sense. When she and her mom were a family, just the two of them against the world. But now her mom is gone most of the time, chasing the next marriage, bringing home the next stepfather. Anna is left on her own—until she discovers that she can make boys her family. From Desmond to Joey, Todd to Sam, Anna learns that if you give boys what they want, you can get what you need. But the price is high—the other kids make fun of her; the girls call her a slut. Anna’s new friend, Toy, seems to have found a way around the loneliness, but Toy has her own secrets that even Anna can’t know.
Then comes Sam. When Anna actually meets a boy who is more than just useful, whose family eats dinner together, laughs, and tells stories, the truth about love becomes clear. And she finally learns how it feels to have something to lose—and something to offer. Real, shocking, uplifting, and stunningly lyrical, Uses for Boys is a story of breaking down and growing up.
So, reading this book was an experience. I’ve been thinking about this book quite a bit since I finished, which I suppose is a point in its favor because it is thought-provoking. I believe I understand the ambition behind this book, but I’m not so sure how I feel about the end product. I suppose you could call Uses for Boys a character study of Anna, but I’m not sure it always goes deep enough for even that. There is an attempt to explore and delve into Anna’s life and how it came to be, but at 240 pages it doesn’t really feel thorough or satisfying.
The book starts off with an eight-year-old Anna, and then proceeds to give snippets of her life from that point forward, though the bulk of it is concentrated in the later teen years. Through Anna’s eyes, we see her mother try and find solace in men and build a family, but it never quite works. Anna’s mom dates, then the guy leaves. Sometimes they get married, move in together, and then the guy leaves, but the leaving is the constant in the equation. Anna watches it all, watches her mother throw affection at men and then delve into her character, all the while it’s Anna that craves that affection.
As Anna grows up, she ends up turning to guys for the affection she wants. It starts with a boy feeling her up on the school bus–Anna doesn’t object but it’s also obvious she’s not 100% what’s going on–but then it spirals from there. First it’s Joey, who comes over after school. Then it’s Todd(which is a horrible non-consensual encounter), then Josh, who Anna moves in with. I felt like Uses for Boys started to explore a lot of different ideas in the middle of the book–how Anna can’t differentiate between love and sex which comes from a place rooted in childhood, struggling with money, the aftermath of sexual assault, etc. –but it never follows through with any of them. That was the most frustrating part, because Uses for Boys had a lot of potential.
It’s also a very stark book, which works for the subject matter but also leaves so much unsaid that it feels like too much is left unsaid. Uses for Boys is very frank in its portrayal of sexuality, which I expected from reviews I had previously read. I would hesitate to call it explicit because it’s not written at all in a way made to titillate, but it is graphic and again, stark. I did think that Schmidt did a good job of portraying Anna’s isolation in most of these scenes–she’s physically with someone but it’s very clear that she’s still lonely and set apart.
While there were many things that contributed to my lower rating, I think the biggest factor was the writing style. At first it made sense because it’s in first person and Anna is eight years old, but as the story continued it never reflected Anna’s changes, and it was very repetitive. It’s a stylistic choice more than a critique of skill, but it completely didn’t work for me for this particular story. It grated on me as I continued to read and I thought those words could have been better suited to actually exploring Anna’s situation further in-depth.
Uses for Boys had so much potential, but utterly ended up not impressing me. There were a few good parts and I certainly thought the idea of the book was important in YA, but the writing style and the lack of consideration to certain topics made this one just okay for me. 2/5 cupcakes.