Laura Buzo’s Love and Other Perishable Items is an Australian import, originally published under the title Good Oil and let me just say that this might be one of my favorite reads of 2012. I haven’t read the original version, but this book is infused with Aussie spirit and colloquialisms, yet it’s never in a way that is distracting, frustrating, nor distancing for this thoroughly American reader. In fact, perhaps the strength of this book is just that: it’s a great universal story about love, longing, and growing up.
Buzo’s story is told through two distinct and unique voices. Amelia is a 15-year-old girl who is taking on her first job at Coles, a local grocery store. She lives at home with her mother and father, both of whom she finds emotionally distant. Amelia worries about her mother, particularly because of the way her father treats her. Amelia’s a feminist and wears that badge proudly; knowing her mother works and still has to come home and clean up after her entire family makes her sad.
The second voice we get is Chris’s — he’s a 21-year-old clerk at Coles, and he’s become the guy who Amelia finds herself very interested in, even though he’s much too old for her. Chris finds himself interested in Amelia, but in a very non-romantic way. He thinks she’s the kind of girl worth being friends with, and their bond from the beginning of the story is sweet, in his eyes. Chris is struggling with a number of huge things in his life. His most recent relationship with Michaela was world-blowing for him. He believed they bonded in a way that people who were truly in love bonded. Sex with her wasn’t sex; it as making a real emotional and physical connection with another person. The problem, though, was that Michaela moved back across the country. To the boy she’d been dating for a long time. Chris was just a toy to her, rather than anything serious. This shatters Chris’s world. Along with figuring out what it means to love and be loved, though, Chris also struggles with what he wants out of his future since he’s almost done with school. He’s still living at home, but he’s worried about how he’ll ever afford to move out on his clerk salary, how he’ll ever figure out what he wants to do for a career. How he’ll ever be an adult, period. When he meets Amelia, he immediately recognizes a girl who will be someone with whom he can have a good and important friendship.
The bond between Chris and Amelia is strong, despite the fact they’re both in this for very different reasons. The two of them have lengthy and interesting conversations about the meaning of life, about the purposes and goals of feminism (which helps Amelia reevaluate her feelings about her mother and her father), and perhaps my favorite, a long discussion about literature and books and what it means to have a satisfying ending (and oh, Amelia’s hatred for Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations spoke to my heart). Because the story is a dual perspective, we get the conversations from both sides. There’s Chris’s university- and worldly- educated side and Amelia’s idealistic and romantic side. But what stands out and makes these characters sing is that Buzo never suggests one way of seeing things is the right way. Both of these characters are wrestling with what they want out of life and it’s their particular places and moments that shade their perspectives entirely. The divergent approaches to life is amplified by their six-year age difference and as an adult readers, I found myself relating to both of these characters in equal measure.
Amelia is smart and intelligent and wants nothing more for the world to be right for everyone. She so longs for her first love, and she longs for it to be with Chris. He’s the first person in a long time with whom she’s opened up about what it’s like to live at home and to struggle with her feelings about her mother and her father. He’s the first person she’s ever felt truly connected to and the first guy who she feels like she could love in the way she wants to. He’s the intellectual dream boy she’s always wanted. Chris, though, is exceptionally level-headed about this, and he does not in any way ever take advantage of Amelia, despite being aware she has a crush on him. His voice is that of a young adult, rather than a teen. He’s had a lot more life experience than her, as well as a lot more intellectual experience. The thing is, though, he is never once pretentious and he never once talks down to her. Chris admires and respects Amelia as an individual — as an equivalent and equally worthwhile human being — in a way that made me so happy as a reader. Despite being a little bit of a pill at times (because he cannot pick himself up and act like an adult, even though he has the capability to do just that), I really liked Chris as a character. As much as I related to Amelia, I also related to Chris.
Both of these characters are selfish and needy at times, but because we get both perspectives, their desires and their methods of achieving them make these flaws believable and maybe even a bit charming. But what stood out to me most in Buzo’s Love and Other Perishable Items was that neither of these characters are having huge problems. Their problems are huge in their own minds, and their barriers are completely self-imposed. Chris and Amelia are their own worst enemies in the way that all people are their own self-inhibitors. But it’s through one another — through talking, sharing, relating — they realize they have the opportunity to forge ahead and change things. Of course, this is the climax of the story, and what happens shatters Amelia. It’s here when she not only realizes the sort of pain Chris was dealing with in terms of losing love, but it’s here when Chris offers Amelia the best kind of gift possible: himself. Before he moves himself forward on his new life plan, he leaves his collection of notebooks to her. It’s through these notebooks we’re offered his story and it’s through these notebooks he’ll give Amelia much more to consider. There’s also a great subplot in this book about Amelia’s friend Penny and the hurt she feels dealing with her parents’ divorce. Amelia is able to really put her life in perspective thanks to Penny, but never does it deny Amelia her own pain. It just helps her think about it a little differently.
Because this book does share a story from both the perspective of a 15-year-old and from the perspective of a 21-year-old, it’s not shy. I appreciated how Buzo was unafraid to be raw and unshy in her depiction of these characters and their situations, particularly when it came to Chris. The pain he felt upon losing Michaela more than once (because he’ll lose her more than once throughout the course of the story) tore at me in the same way that Amelia’s realization she’ll never have Chris the way she wants to also tore at me. Lost love hurts the most, but it’s also an amazing impetus for growth. But the truth is in this story, no one actually loses love. Both Amelia and Chris find a whole lot more of it.
Love and Other Perishable Items is a story about love and friendship, and the writing and storytelling reminded me a lot of CK Kelly Martin’s contemporary titles. Fans of Martin will absolutely eat this title up. I was also reminded quite heavily of Lia Hills’s The Beginner’s Guide to Living, especially when it came to portraying intelligent characters with strong voice. Because this book features an older character, it will appeal easily to teens (both because Amelia is a teen and because it allows a glimpse into “older” life) and it will appeal to 20-something readers looking for an easy-to-relate-to character (Chris goes as far as to muse about how he’ll ever afford a mortgage knowing he’s sunk under student debt and more — that’s to say, the stresses are pretty spot-on for this age group). Despite the fact the ending isn’t straight-forward nor necessarily easy to take — it’s open-ended without a firm resolution for either character — this book was satisfying and left me feeling really happy at the end. The ride through the entire story with both of these characters was worthwhile, and I loved that I got to know and got to “get” them both wholly.
Review copy from the publisher. Love and Other Perishable Items will be available December 11.