In high school, there’s always that one girl people whisper about, the one that has the reputation of “school slut.” Maybe she got that reputation from being caught on school grounds having sex with her boyfriend, or she’s the type of girl who steals other girls’ boyfriends. Or she could have been the girl that got knocked up and had an abortion. Perhaps she didn’t do any of those things.
It doesn’t really matter what she did or didn’t do. The gossip and labels her peers give her will define her.
Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr is a young adult story about Deanna Lambert, a girl who was caught, by her father, having sex with her brother’s seventeen-year-old friend, when she was only thirteen. Three years later, Deanna is labeled as the “school slut.” Suffering from low self-esteem, a poor and highly dysfunctional family, and crushing on her best friend’s boyfriend, Deanna is stuck within the past, unable to form any true relationships or move on and plan a future for herself.
By the end of the story, Deanna is able to move on. But how does she break free from her reputation? It’s not because the world she lives in changes. Everyone’s views of her remain the same. She’s still considered the school slut, but what does change is her. By learning to forgive others, she allows herself to be forgiven. By changing how she responds, she opens the doorway for hope and change: “Forgetting isn’t enough. You can paddle away from the memories and think they are gone. But they will keep floating back, again and again and again. They circle you, like sharks. And you are bleeding your fear into the sea, until, unless something. Someone? Can do more than just cover the wound.” (147)
From the beginning Deanna’s point of view is two-fold. Outwardly, she’s extremely tough, but, inwardly, she is a very vulnerable teenage girl. This vulnerability makes her highly self-protective. She’s haunted by a past action she wishes she could undo. This memory pains her every time it arises. Deanna has a realistic voice, full of self-doubt, loneliness, and most of all, a need to connect to others. To be needed and loved. By Zarr writing Story of a Girl through Deanna’s point of view, she is making Deanna an authentic teenage voice and relatable to readers, regardless of whether or not they’ve been caught having sex by their father. Because most people know what it’s like to be labeled and to have those labels stick, and to want to break away from what other people define you as.
In terms of plot, there isn’t any huge climatic ending. There isn’t a major dramatic scene anywhere within the novel. However, the story is powerful. Zarr uses quieter scenes to showcase Deanna slowly overcoming the “slut” label she’s been placed under, revealing a deeper and more accurate view of Deanna. This quiet growth allows for a truer version of Deanna to progress, and shows her maturing in a realistic way. By using subtler moments, Zarr allows for the universal themes of the story to shine: the unfairness of having false identities forced onto you, the ache of being unable to change past events, and the desperate need to belong to a group of people who will love you despite your flaws.
For most of the story, Deanna doesn’t have an accepting family, so she attempts to escape from herself. Zarr uses sub-chapters to weave a story within a story. These sub-chapters act as Deanna’s coping mechanism. In them, she is not Deanna Lambert, but the girl on the waves: “I’d already detached from the conversation. In my head I saw the girl on the waves, bobbing along, thinking my thoughts, feeling my feelings, swimming away.” (30) The girl on the waves acts as Deanna’s emotional buffer, but once Deanna begins to move on, the girl on the waves becomes less of a presence within the story, until she disappears and there’s only Deanna left. Zarr’s use of these sub-chapters gives readers an idea of how fragile Deanna’s internal state is and how lonely and isolated she is. Unable to confront her emotions on her past, Deanna hides behind the girl on the waves, until, finally, she is able to start to take back her emotions and her identity piece by piece.
Story of a Girl is not a happy story. It doesn’t have a fairytale ending. Deanna is not completely healed, but she’s in the process of healing. She’s hopeful and looking toward a future she didn’t conceive of before.
(Photo courtesy of Chris Weisberg.)