Maria Semple, New York Times bestselling author of Where'd You Go Bernadette
Named One of the Best Books of the Summer by Good Morning America, Cosmopolitan, Harper's Bazaar, and PopSugar
A daringly honest, sexy debut novel about three young women coming of age in 1980s New England and New Yorka bingeable summer read
It's 1983. David Bowie reigns supreme, and downtown Manhattan has never been cooler. But Justine and Eve are stuck at Griswold Academy, a Connecticut boarding school. Griswold is a far cry from Justine's bohemian life in New Haven, where her parents run a theater and struggle to pay the bills. Eve, the sophisticated daughter of status-obsessed Park Avenue parents, also feels like an outsider amidst Griswold's preppy jocks and debutantes. Justine longs for Eve's privilege, and Eve for Justine's sexual confidence. Despite their differences, they form a deep friendship, together grappling with drugs, alcohol, ill-fated crushes, and predatory male teachers.
After a tumultuous school year, Eve and Justine spend the summer in New York City where they join Eve's childhood friend India. Justine moves into India's Hell's Kitchen apartment and is pulled further into her friends' glamorous lives. Eve, under her parents' ever-watchful eye, interns at a SoHo art gallery and navigates the unpredictable whims of her boss. India struggles to resist the advances of a famous artist represented by the gallery. All three are affected by their sexual relationships with older men and the power adults hold over them, even as the young women begin to assert their independence.
A captivating, timeless novel about friendship, sex, and parental damage, Amanda Brainerd's Age of Consent intimately evokes the heady freedom of our teenage years.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Connecticut, September 1983
"Let me out," Justine said.
"It's only a hundred yards to the dorm," her father replied.
"Stop the car!"
Miles pulled the wheezing orange Volvo onto the shoulder, and Justine surveyed the Griswold campus through the bug-spewn windshield. Manicured lawns with a mix of brick and clapboard clustered around a quad they called "the Green."
"Lugging that heavy suitcase is a lot more embarrassing than showing up in the rust mobile," he said.
"Oxygen," she said, opening the door and hauling her suitcase out of the back seat.
He needed a shave and his eyes were moist with tears. "Don't forget . . ." he trailed off.
"I won't!" She shut the door and began walking across the lawn.
Don't forget what? Now the suitcase was making ugly divots in the perfect grass. She glanced around to see whether anyone noticed, but nobody was there.
Justine arrived in front of the dorm, sweating. She blew a wave of hair out of her face. A few weeks ago, sitting at their kitchen table in New Haven, her mother had pushed aside the toast crumbs and dirty teacups to read the letter describing Justine's new roommate, pausing here and there for dramatic emphasis.
"Tierney Worthington, 234 Victory Gardens, Moodus, Connecticut," Cressida had mused. "Moodus, how unusual. Not the predicted Greenwich or Darien?"
Justine fought the urge to snatch the letter back.
"Maybe Griswold isn't so homogenous after all," Cressida continued. "More than just heiresses and tennis champions."
"Don't count on it," Miles grunted, frowning over his glasses.
The dorm was a small colonial house with a columned porch. Justine saw several similar quaint houses around the Green with harried parents unpacking trunks in front of them.
As she hauled her suitcase up the steps, a silver car pulled in, a chrome panther leaping from its hood. A man in Bermuda shorts opened the trunk and heaved a suitcase onto the gravel.
"Tierney, exactly what did you pack? Rocks?"
A Tretorn sneaker appeared from the back seat, followed by a pretty, freckled girl with a ponytail.
Justine trudged up the steps and opened the door.
A living room off the stair hall had two sofas, a framed impressionist poster, and aggressively floral wallpaper. The carpet was hunter green, worn down from years of Tretorns, Justine thought, looking down at her pointy hot pink flats. She'd bought them at a thrift shop in New Haven, and until seconds ago they had seemed so cool. Now she realized they were trashy and cheap.
She climbed the stairs and found her room. It was cramped, with wooden bunk beds and matching dressers. At some point it must have been a real bedroom, Justine realized, as she noticed the wainscoting and the paneled doors. A dormer window framed the lawn. It could be charming, if only her mother were here to work her magic.
Tierney and her father were arguing in the hall.
Would she and Tierney undress in front of each other? Despite the features she hated, short legs and big nose, Justine had perfect breasts, and anyone who had ever seen them (five boys and one full-grown man) agreed. She unpacked her teddy bear, Henry, and set him down on the bottom bunk. The view from the top would make her dizzy.
Her roommate appeared, narrowing her eyes as her father struggled through the door with a suitcase. An errant piece of iron-gray hair was hanging down his sweaty forehead. He stuck out his hand. "Whit Worthington. You must be Justine." His grip mashed her knuckle joints together. "Where are your parents?"
"My dad had to take off."
"And miss Family Orientation Day?" He set the suitcase down and looked around.
"They have to work."
"Don't we all," he said, smoothing his hair back into place.
"This room is disgusting," Tierney said.
The pictures had been deceiving, Justine had to admit. Hadn't there been a photo somewhere of white bedspreads and flowers in a vase?
"And I have two more suitcases."
"Couldn't you have brought less?" Mr. Worthington said, rubbing his elbow.
Tierney stared her father down like a snake until he left the room. The same lime-green eyes now assessed Justine. "I'm Tierney. Nice shoes," she said. "Where'd you get them?"
Tierney opened her clutch, pulled out a lip gloss, and applied it. "Does your father teach at Yale? What's his name?" She dropped the tube in the purse and closed the bamboo clasp.
"Miles. He runs a theater."
It took Tierney a moment to process this information. "Oh! Maybe I'll check it out when I'm enrolled. Loads of Worthingtons went to Yale," she added.
Tierney spotted Justine's stuffed bear. "No, wait, I have to have the bottom bunk."
"I'll barf if I have to sleep up there," Justine pleaded.
"I have acrophobia. You know, fear of heights." Tierney threw her clutch on the lower mattress.
Justine moved Henry to the top bunk. His button eyes stared down at her forlornly.
"Is that all you have?" Tierney asked, pointing to Justine's suitcase.
Justine nodded, suddenly anxious to get outside. "See you in a bit, I'm going for a butt."
"Um, a cigarette."
Tierney looked aghast. "What kind of parents would give their kid permission to smoke?"
Justine's parents, that's who.
Justine had filled out the permission forms herself, checking off "yes" for everything. Her father had signed without reading them. Yes, you can smoke, yes, you can stay home alone while we go to England, yes, you can stay out all night drinking and puke on our front steps, yes, you can lose your virginity in our bed.
"I'd never, ever, ever smoke," Tierney continued. "Daddy's a plastic surgeon. He says when you cut people open you can tell if they smoke by how their blood congeals."
Justine walked across the sloping avenue that bisected the campus. It was a cloudless day, and a breeze rustled through the maples. Her parents were firm believers in public education, and in theory, she was too. But the day after her friend Raoul overdosed on heroin in the boy's bathroom, she'd called Griswold and requested an application. An envelope arrived a week later, enclosing a glossy brochure. The cover bore a coat of arms with the school's motto, "Incipit Vita Nova," which Cressida proudly translated as "Here Begins New Life." Reading the course catalog, Justine felt a thrill of possibility-an entire semester on Faulkner, another on Emily Dickinson.
She was accepted with a full scholarship. At home, heated discussion ensued. Justine worried about keeping up with the wealthy kids. She wasn't concerned about the boys; boys were something she did well. But the money. She barely had enough to buy a soda. But all her parents could fret about was their daughter being corrupted by privilege. In the end, despite her parents' misgivings and her own, Justine enrolled.
An old friend from New Haven who had gone to Griswold had described townies roaring through in Camaros, chucking flaming beer cans and screaming, "Gas the Geeks!" The pristine campus was indeed a sharp contrast with Wormley, the sorrowful town that surrounded it. Justine didn't blame the townies for resenting this idyllic world.
She walked along lush playing fields, the white goalposts gleaming against the cerulean sky. Around the back of a brick athletic building were trash cans and discarded athletic gear. Next to this was a sandy patch with a few wooden benches and airport-style ashtrays. She saw a boy in a long trench coat, boom box on his shoulder, swaying like a cobra. Another boy, a jock, balanced a girl on his lap who was blowing smoke rings.
Down the bench sat a girl with lanky legs stretched out in the dirt. Calculatedly sloppy, Justine thought, but everything she wore, from the soft leather of her jacket to the polished toe of her combat boots, looked expensive.
Was Justine the only scholarship student here?
"Do you have a light?" Justine asked her.
The girl looked up from under a tangle of dark hair and chucked matches at Justine, who just managed to catch them.
"What's the Cat Club?" Justine asked, looking at the matchbook.
"Nightclub in the city. A.k.a. the Litter Box." The girl pulled a blue package of tobacco from her motorcycle jacket. Placing a pinch in the crease of a rolling paper, she fashioned a cigarette that looked like a joint.
Her fingernails were painted cobalt blue.
Justine glanced back at the blond jock, admiring the sharp arc of his cheekbone and the curve of his lats, visible through his T-shirt in all their masculine glory.
The girl leaned toward Justine. "Bruce Underwood," she whispered, "and yeah, he's a hunk of burning love."
Clearly, she needed to be much less obvious when interested in a boy. "I'm Justine Rubin."
"Ah ha! Fellow member of the tribe. I'm Eve Straus." Eve made quote marks with her fingers. "Diversity."
"Yeah, I'm rooming with Miss Country Club."
Eve smiled. "Lot of those around here. I got Tabitha the Texan. She's already put up tacky animal posters. You know that one with the kitten dangling from a branch that says 'Hang in there, baby'?"
"Please say you're making that up."
"I wish!" Eve flicked her cigarette in the dust.
The boy in the trench spun in a circle, ear to the boom box.
Bruce was braiding the girl's hair.
"How do you know that guy?"
Eve started rolling another cigarette. "I got into that special art studio that started Tuesday, so I've figured a few things out, like who the hot guys are."
Art studio? Justine hadn't seen that in the brochures. Maybe they didn't offer it to the scholarship students.
"I should have stayed in Paris." Eve sighed, and Justine could just imagine her at a cafe table behind dark sunglasses, cigarette smoke curling over the boulevard.
"The only place I've been in Europe is England," Justine said.
One summer her parents had traveled to London, her father looking for new plays for his theater. They rented a National Trust cottage in the Cotswolds and brought Justine along. She loved that time-the AGA stove, the rain streaking down the leaded-glass windows, the narrow streets of the stony village. There was no television and no radio, and they had spent hours on a picture puzzle of a unicorn under a waterfall.
"I hate England," Eve said. "Rains nonstop. The food sucks."
"Yeah," Justine agreed, even though her parents had cooked at the house to save money. "I could barely eat a thing. I was so skinny when I came back."
"You're so frigging skinny now!"
"I think she's a fox." The blond god materialized in front of them, cocking his head at Justine. She felt her face flush.
He sat on the bench between them.
Justine fought to find her voice. "Justine."
"You spoken for?"
She shook her head. Boys did not usually fluster her.
"Cool. I'll drop by sometime," Bruce said, with a confident nod.
Justine watched him go.
"Like how he just assumed we knew who he was, and where you live." Suddenly Eve jumped up. "Oh fuck." She dropped her cigarette and dashed around the other side of the building.
A bearded teacher with a clipboard headed over with long strides.
He looked down at her with cool gray eyes, then checked his clipboard.
"Would I be correct in assuming we have a signed smoking form?"
He checked the clipboard again, running his finger up and down, flipping through the pages. Justine began to fear that the permission slip had gotten lost in the mail.
"Ah, yes, Rubin," he finally said, a tinge of disappointment in his voice. "Sophomore. See you first thing tomorrow in class. English, as in the language." He strode off.
Justine sank down on the bench and pulled out another cigarette, but realized that Eve had taken the matches. The Litter Box? A nightclub? How divine. Justine tried to imagine growing up in the city like Eve-the museums and restaurants and clubs. Someday she would live there, she thought, digging into her schoolbag for another pack of matches. She found some tucked into her copy of Baudelaire. The book was a treasure, clothbound in black with faded gold lettering. She read "Spleen" for the umpteenth time. Justine loved the line about the hearses passing by, slowly, in his soul. How many times had she fell prey to the same ennui?
When Justine looked up at the playing field, she realized that the teacher must have frightened everyone away except for that strange boy, still twirling with his boom box. She watched him sway. He was tall and lanky, with fair, fine hair. With the speaker pressed to his ear his eyes slipped closed in ecstasy-no wonder, she thought, recognizing Bowie's "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." Oh no, love, you're not alone!
"Hey!" she called, standing up and walking over.
His eyes opened, bulging and pale. He stared at her, without focus, and tilted his head closer to the speaker. I'll help you with the paaaaain!
She tugged at his sleeve.
"Are you tripping?"
He turned his back, shimmying out into the field.
She followed him.
The song ended with an abrupt stroke of strings. He whipped around. "Bowie's my drug."
"I'm Justine." She stuck out her hand.
"I don't touch people. Your parents fans of Sade?"
"The Marquis de Sade. He wrote a book called Justine. About S and M."
She shook her head, wondering if Miles and Cressida had named her that on purpose. It would be just like them.
"I have it in my room. You can borrow it."
His stare was as intense as a religious zealot's. She could see the backs of his eyeballs.
"What's your name?"
"Stanley." There was a slight twang in his voice. He looked down at the grass under his tattered sneaker, held together by duct tape.
"Where're you from?"
"Oklahoma. I'm a stranger from a strange land."
Eve Straus hurried from the smoker toward the Bradley Arts Center. Justine Rubin. Maybe they could be friends. She looked like a fairy-tale version of Virginia Woolf. A rarefied kind of beauty, and maybe too particular for high school boys to observe. But then again, Bruce had pounced in two seconds.
Griswold. Eve recalled the fateful conversation she'd had with her parents, driving to the beach just a few blissful months ago.
"I'm not going back to Beaverton!" Eve had blurted out as her mother steered the car onto Montauk Highway. Her father turned around to stare at her in surprise. Her brother, Sandy, was blasting music on his Walkman, oblivious, gazing at the passing pines.
"What are you talking about?"
Eve tried to breathe. "Sorry, that came out wrong," she stammered. "I can't go back there, it's . . ." She began to cry. Her father looked at her in confusion, while her mother stared stonily at the highway. Eve had been miserable at her all-girls school, but once she had realized it, the truth seemed obvious. She managed to calm herself enough to talk. "I hate Beaverton, they've got me in a corner . . ." Eve glanced out the window at a passing Winnebago, and back into her father's bewildered face. "You try staying in a tiny all-girls school for your whole life!"
Reading Group Guide
1. Discuss the title of the novel. Why do you think the author chose this title? How is it related to the story?
2. What do we mean when we say “consent?” How does it concern the characters in the novel?
3. Discuss the role of parenting in the novel. What do you think of Justine’s parents’ style vis-à-vis Eve’s? Do you think some of the parents in the novel are better than others? How is parenting different today?
4. How does the shift from Griswold Academy to New York City change the characters? What happens to the girls’ conflicts and tensions when they go from a highly monitored environment to the lawless land of the city?
5. Explore the theme of privilege in the novel. How does privilege play out in the lives of the novel’s characters? Are there different kinds of privilege? Do the characters recognize their privilege?
6. The novel inhabits the minds of Justine, Eve, and India. Did this glimpse into the teenage perspective remind you of your adolescence? Which aspects of the young women’s experiences with parents, teachers, jobs, obsessions, sex, drugs, and boys resonated most strongly with your own teenage years? Which parts felt foreign?
7. What role does money play in the novel? Are the characters’ relationships with one another influenced by money? To what extent does money give people power over others?
8. How would you characterize Eve and Justine’s friendship? How does it change over the course of the novel? What draws them to each other? When and why do cracks begin to form in their friendship? And what do you think makes teenage friendships like theirs so intense?
9. Eve, Justine, and India were all involved with older men at one point or another. With time and perspective, how do you think they will come to understand these relationships? Do you think some of their experiences will be more scarring than others?
10. What do you make of the disintegration of Justine and Clay’s relationship? Did you empathize with Clay? How do you feel about the treatment of his father
11. Age of Consent examines power dynamics in platonic, sexual, and parental relationships. Consider India’s relationship with Massimo, Eve’s relationship with Mr. Winkler, Justine’s relationship with her parents, and any other relationships in the novel. How does power function in these relationships? Did anything surprise you about these dynamics?
12. Discuss the characters’ personal transformations over the course of the novel. What kind of life do you think they will each have going forward, and how do you think they will reckon with the year?