In Praise Of Judy Blume's 'Forever'
The Debrief: 40 years on, and the book that taught us more about sex and relationships than any of our teachers ever did, is still a bestseller
My copy was an ancient, dog-eared edition, passed down to me with great ceremony by a girl a few years older, like the teen equivalent of a precious heirloom. The dirty passages had been read and re-read so many times that the book fell open at them, so I kept it hidden in the drawer in my bedside table, away from my mum’s prying eyes.
The book was Forever by Judy Blume, the ultimate female coming-of-age novel. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s the love story between Katherine, an average 17-year-old growing up in New Jersey; Michael, a fellow high-school student; and Michael’s penis – which, as millions of women can vividly, sniggeringly recall, is inexplicably called Ralph. Katherine loses her virginity to Michael and vows to love him forever, but at the end (spoiler alert) they split up before heading off to different universities.
This year marks Forever’s 40th anniversary, a milestone its author will celebrate this weekend with a special talk at London’s Young Adult Fiction Convention (July 18). After four decades, it’s still a bestseller, which is no surprise to fans like me. It’s the most honest account of first love and first sex any teenager could hope to read, handled with Blume’s trademark wisdom and warm reassurance, and without even a hint of condescension.
I was 13 when I first read it – probably a couple of years younger than the author intended, but exactly the age when the concept of sex starts to become intriguing. I re-read it several times over the course of my angst-ridden teenage years, each time taking something different from it. When I read it again this week, 20 years on, I found I could still remember entire passages (and not just the filthy ones, although the bit where Katherine tries to put an aftershave called Moustache on Michael’s balls is pretty memorable.)
Books which have an emotional impact on us as teenagers stay with us. Blume has always known this, which is her genius: she’s well aware she’s talking to young women at a vulnerable stage in our lives, so she makes her messages supportive, to carry with us through the years ahead.
Forever’s messages stand the test of time so well, it’s hard to believe it was published in 1975 (references to the latest Robert Redford movie notwithstanding). For a start, the sex is totally realistic. Like any curious adolescent, I’d read sex scenes in books before, but they all seemed to consist of men with huge, throbbing members and women who scream with delight after a nano-second of touching.
As exciting as that sounded, even at that age I had a sneaking suspicion it might be sugar-coating the experience. Blume gives it to us straight. When Katherine loses her virginity, it hurts, and Michael climaxes within seconds before somewhat lamely blaming his performance on the type of condom he used. In other words, it’s much like most people’s real experience of popping their cherry.
Forever deals with the complicated emotions which spring up at that time in our lives: the sense of wanting to explore our new desires, while worrying we might not be quite ready. Blume doesn’t moralise about her heroine’s choices: she presents sex as a fun, natural part of adult relationships – once the rubbish first time’s over with – but one worthy of proper thought. And, ever aware of her responsibilities to her audience, she sends Katherine to a family planning clinic to get contraception.
Although it’s what we all remember it for, it’s not just about sex. Like all Blume’s novels, it features several weighty issues, including a teenage boy struggling to work out his sexuality, a suicide attempt and a teen pregnancy. The period just before we reach adulthood is often filled with turmoil, and most of us face some dark moments. Forever encapsulates the turbulence of that strange, often exhilarating but also terrifying time.
In keeping with the era in which it was written, it’s also heartening in its feminism. Katherine is a strong-minded young woman with a liberal, open mother and, brilliantly, a grandma who’s a hot-shot lawyer and campaigns for Planned Parenthood, which gave – and still gives – women access to contraception and terminations (a minefield in a country which only legalised abortion in 1973). Katherine loves Michael, but she doesn’t gaze adoringly at him like a helpless child – or Bella in Twilight – wondering if she’s special enough for his love. She doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to.
But for me, what really makes Forever such an enduring classic is its ending, which is as far from happy-ever-after as it’s possible to get. When I first read the part where Katherine develops feelings for someone else and ends her relationship with Michael, I was disappointed. I thought that when I fell in love, it really would be forever.
But then my first love finally arrived when I was 18, and departed soon after. I got over it, as Judy Blume said I would – because she isn’t interested in fairy tales. She’s too busy preparing us for real life. And that’s a gift worth celebrating.
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At work? With your gran?
You might want to think about the fact you're about to read something that wouldn't exactly get a PG rating