- Reading Like a Girl: Narrative Intimacy in Contemporary American Young Adult Literature by Sara K. Day
In her first book-length publication, Sara K. Day coins the phrase “narrative intimacy” to refer to “narrator-reader relationships that reflect, model, and reimagine interpersonal relationships through the disclosure of information and the experience of the story as a space that the narrator invites the reader to share” (3). Employing a theoretical framework that combines cultural studies and narrative theory, Day examines narrative intimacy—which, she notes, can be characteristic of any text in which a first-person narrator addresses intimate details of story to an implied reader—in the context of literature for young adult women, which often encourages readers to respond emotionally to a narrator as something beyond an objective fictional construct. Day’s analysis exposes the possibilities and problems created by a so-called intimacy that results, paradoxically, from the invulnerable stance of a narrator who exists only inside the “safe space” of her story and the vicarious stance of a reader who “enjoy[s] disclosure without facing the pressure of having to reciprocate” (28). Emphasizing the intersection of the personal and the cultural in the space shared by readers and narrators, Day claims that narrative intimacy in novels written for adolescent women “highlights and reinforces often contradictory cultural expectations regarding young women’s involvement in interpersonal relationships” (4).
Day focuses on literature for young adults published between 1994, the year Mary Pipher published Reviving Ophelia and the beginning of an era intensely concerned with “adolescent women’s emotional health” (Day 24), and 2010. Day makes clear that she has limited her investigation to literature focusing on and written to American “white, middle class, and heterosexual” adolescent girls, a population she claims is most often represented in pop culture messages about American female adolescents’ participation in “interpersonal relationships and intimacy” (10). She does not refer explicitly to her choice to include only works by female authors; furthermore, potential readers should know that except for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Day’s text selection, which includes many award-winning novels, is drawn exclusively from the genre of realistic fiction.
Day’s first chapter provides the foundation for her project. In service to establishing the paradigm described above, she presents an engaging [End Page 335] discussion of the aspects of narrative theory upon which she builds her concept of narrative intimacy. Day’s references to cultural context in chapter 1 are less robust, but perhaps purposefully so, for she begins the next three chapters with a detailed investigation of the messages that popular media—often in the form of self-help literature for adolescent women and their parents—send about each topic under examination.
In chapter 2, Day surveys television shows and movies, as well as self-help books and psychological studies about adolescent female friendships, in order to create a cultural backdrop against which to consider fictional representations of friendship in young adult novels that employ narrative intimacy. Arguing convincingly that each text “constructs the role of the reader as friend” (35), Day emphasizes the contradictory relationship between the internal conflicts of protagonists over disclosure and discretion in friendships and the open, “tell-all” ways in which the protagonists convey such struggles. Her analysis is at its best when she pinpoints these intersections of form and content, which often coincide with stages of the protagonist’s personal growth that betray an underlying hypocrisy in the novel’s message about friendship.
Following this model of establishing cultural context and then close reading examples of narrative intimacy, chapter 3 posits that books about adolescent female heterosexuality draw upon the cultural understanding that female friendships serve as models for romantic relationships. Borrowing feminist narrative theorist Robyn Warhol’s term “unnarration” (70), which speaks to the practice wherein texts indicate when a character experiences a feeling too powerful for words to describe, Day tracks the ways first-person female narrators cast the reader as accomplice in choices about sexuality, and as voyeur to the sexual acts those choices...