Reviewed by Drennan Spitzer

In Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You, the incredibly prolific Joyce Carol Oates gives us a young adult novel in keeping with her other young adult works, such as Big Mouth & Ugly Girl. Oates tells the stories of Merissa and Nadia, two contemporary teenage girls in their senior year of high school, and their friend Tink Traumer who has died the year before. Oates’s ability to deal authentically with such immediate and difficult issues as eating disorders, suicide and suicidal ideation, and self-mutilation makes this work compelling, even in the absence of a clearly constructed plot. This character-driven work presents multiple points of view and reads quickly, as one might expect from a young adult work.

Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You is broken into three sections, each of which focuses on one character—Merissa, Tink, Nadia. All three girls face situations and traumas that, although difficult emotionally to read about, are particularly common and prevalent among teens, especially middle and upper class teens in the United States. This is emphasized by the novel’s being set in a chic, expensive prep school, rather than a public school. The multiple points of view and shifts of narrative focus could be distracting in less skillful hands, but Oates manages them well.

Oates’s treatment of self-mutilation—for we learn rather quickly that Merissa, dubbed “The Perfect One” by Tink and her friends, is a cutter as a means of stress relief–is particularly thoughtful. Here a behavior, one that is so often marginalized in our culture, is treated with the kind of thoughtfulness that allows the reader to understand some of the motivation behind what would otherwise seem such an inconceivable choice on the part of a beautiful, successful young woman. The novel is worth reading for the insight it allows into this, if nothing else.

As much as I like Oates’s work and am drawn particularly to her novels which tend to be somewhat tragic, I am tired of the focus on the plight of the middle- and upper-middle class female. Certainly, this is a demographic I relate to. I understand the neurotic, prone-to-depression, slightly-anxious woman just trying to make her way in an upper-middle class world that feels hostile and threatening at every turn. But where is the sensitivity to those who truly suffer, to those even in the United States who are disadvantaged and abused? While Merissa, Nadia, and even Tink face difficulties that are both uniquely their own and are sadly prevalent among teenage girls in our culture—neglect by parents and emotional and psychological distress—I would like some acknowledgement that ultimately their position of privilege allows them opportunity to overcome these difficulties that the truly disadvantaged in our culture may not have.

Nevertheless, once again, Oates demonstrates her ability to authentically produce the experience and pain of being a young woman in contemporary culture.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Drennan Spitzer is a writer and blogger from California who now resides in New England. She writes creatively, blogs publicly, and journals privately. You can find her at http://drennanspitzer.com.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by HarperTeen. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.