Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s debut Uses for Boys is daring and unafraid — this book is candid in topic, so if sex in young adult fiction is a topic that interests you, here you go.
Anna, age five, was all her mother needed. She doted upon Anna, and Anna loved it. This was what it meant to be a family. To feel like everything was right and good. Anna never knew her dad, but the love given to her by her mother was more than enough.
Then her mom started dating again. Then her mom got married again. Then divorced. Then started dating again. Then got married again. Then divorced. This cycle defined the relationship between Anna and her mother. No longer was Anna all mom needed. It was the men. It was the husbands. It was the lives those men gave her mother.
Anna gets lost in this life. She falls out of her mother’s attention. When she turns thirteen, Anna has the first taste of being the center of attention again, but this time, it comes from a boy on the school bus. He grabs her breast. She likes the way it makes her feel, like she means something to him. But, he does it for show, and he gets a good laugh out of the entire event. Anna loses her only friend because she’s labeled easy, because the way she let that boy touch her made her a bad person.
Alone again, Anna seeks out other boys. If it’s good for her mother, then it’s got to be good for her, too. She finds Joey. He treats her well, and they have a lot of sex. In fact, he is the first boy to teach her how her body can feel sexually. She likes this. But it’s not too long before Joey is ripped away from her, either. He moves from Portland to Seattle.
By this point, Anna’s in a new home, there’s a new stepdad and a new step family. That changes not long after a family trip to a resort. One where — spoiler — Anna becomes a rape victim. Where she doesn’t stop the boy from taking even more from her. Her sexual independence is, of course, compromised, despite the fact she was never truly sexually independent in the first place. She wasn’t owning it. She was submitting to it out of the belief that was how things worked. It was what made her mom the way she was. It was what made Anna no longer a thing needed.
Then, Anna meets Toy. Toy’s the girl she runs into at Goodwill while shopping. Toy is the girl Anna wants to be. Toy comes from a broken family, too, but she’s got boyfriends who care about her so much. There’s the one who buys her all kinds of things. The one who wants to take her traveling. The one who loves her unconditionally. These are all the things Anna wants and just doesn’t get with her boys. Anna convinces herself repeatedly that she is good. That what she’s getting sexually is what she needs. It makes her wanted. It makes her loved.
There is another boy, Josh. This time, though, Anna is convinced he’s the real deal. She loves him so much and he loves her, too. Anna’s mom is absent all of the time, and being alone in the big house isn’t what she wants. So Anna decides it’s time to make some hard choices: she moves out and into Josh’s apartment in Portland proper. She also drops out of school and takes a job instead. Then there is a lot of sex. But in reading between the lines, it’s clear Anna isn’t feeling this relationship. Maybe she’s not in love with Josh quite the way she thinks she should be. He’s kind of a loser. He has no ambitions. He wants to go no where. The apartment stinks, and he never has the interest in making it better.
Here’s a spoiler paragraph, so skip down if you need to. Anna finds out she’s pregnant with Josh’s baby. And while Josh is an incredible supportive character when she makes the decision to have an abortion, it’s here when Anna has her true turnaround. It’s a choice she makes to not have the baby. It’s a choice she lives with. It’s a choice that ultimately forces her to choose to move out of Josh’s and into a new place. To let him out of her life completely. Throughout this, Anna has a touch-and-go relationship with Toy. Toy’s continually with her own boys who dote on her. With her own boys that take her time away from Anna. With, as it turns out, a fantasy life. That’s her escape from her own loneliness.
When Anna moves into her own place, her mom pops back in the picture, but only to criticize her. Why won’t she go back to school and make something of herself? Why won’t she move back to the house in the suburbs?
If it weren’t obvious, there is another boy. Sam. But this boy is the right one. This is the boy who teaches Anna what it means to love, the boy who teaches Anna what a family is and what a family can do for a person. Sam’s also a virgin. Sam doesn’t push Anna into sex. Instead, he teaches her how to appreciate and respect her body, her sexuality, and most importantly, her own choices. Sam and his family (his mother in particular — who is a great adult character, despite her short page time) give Anna the gift of learning to love herself and own her choices for herself.
Uses for Boys is not a boy-saves-girl story. The person who saves Anna in this story is Anna alone. She makes questionable choices throughout her entire life, and she loses a lot of herself in doing so. These choices aren’t likable ones. She has a lot of meaningless sex, and she ascribes a lot of meaning to the way boys treat her, even when there is no meaning to be ascribed. She does this because this is what she’s seen and grown up with. Her mother did exactly this and taught Anna that was how things work. That her life and her choices were dependent upon men. That men came and went. That men were what got you a house, got you a life, and got you a future.
Anna is probably not a likable character. This is because of her choices and because they don’t make a lot of sense. But that’s the entire point — choices are choices. They aren’t the definition of who you are. Anna’s mom made choices. It didn’t mean that when she needed to be there for Anna, she wouldn’t be (she is, though she herself isn’t likable in those moments, either). Anna is a smart, strong female; the trouble and the point is that she’s crushed under the models of life she’s seen around her, she’s lived with, she’s befriended, and that she believes the world puts upon her.
Scheidt’s writing is short and staccato. The chapters span between a single paragraph and a couple of pages. Though a lot of living and a lot of events happen, the way it’s captured through Anna’s voice works. There aren’t short cuts here, and never do any of the issues feel like they’re crushed beneath others. That’s because despite the choices, Anna continues to live, to grow, to think, and to hope. This is a brisker read, but there’s a lot to tease out.
Hand Uses for Boys off to readers who like Amy Reed or Ellen Hopkins. This is a near perfect read alike to Reed’s Beautiful, featuring a younger teen female caught up in a number of mature, heart-breaking situations and who struggles to make it through. There is sex in this book, and it is graphic, so readers who shy away from reading it will want to skip this book. But for the readers looking for an honest, aching, and brutal portrayal of teen sex will find Uses for Boys one of the best treatments.
Uses for Boys will be available now from St. Martin’s Press. Review copy received from the publisher.