The first time I read Judy Blume’s “Forever...” I thought of it as “the book with the penis named Ralph.” Naturally, it was my favorite book of all time.
The second time I read “Forever...” it was still the book about Ralph the Penis.
The third time, just last month, it became the book that perfectly detailed first love, with a ridiculously responsible 17-year-old protagonist.
“Reader” is on the short list of things that define me, and I rarely reread books. There is too much undiscovered out there to repeat a past story, with very few exceptions. “Forever...” is clearly one of them. Judy Blume was my favorite author growing up, and I loved “Forever...” for the same reason all the other virgins did: for its frank talk about sex. Rereading it as a married lady, it became something different—something much more.
In case you’re one of those women who somehow never stumbled on the book (and don’t mind having the story ruined—spoiler alert: I will be talking about the ending), “Forever...” is the story of Katherine and Michael, two seniors in high school. They meet at a New Year’s Eve party, fall in love, have sex, bicker, make up, have more sex, get separated by their parents, break up, and move on. It is special because it is utterly ordinary. I imagine many girls relate to Katherine, even just parts of her experience.
I read an essay once by someone who named “Catcher in the Rye” as his favorite book. He read it every few years, and once he’d read the book a half-dozen times, he realized that his changing opinion with each read illustrated where he, the essayist, was in his life. As a kid, he idolized Holden Caulfield. As a teen, he related to the character. As a twentysomething, he chuckled at Holden’s antics; as a thirtysomething, he judged him for his immaturity.
Rereading “Forever...” was a similar experience for me. It had been more than a decade since my last read, and a lot has changed in my take on the book:
1. “Forever...” is a sweet, accurate story of first love.
This, the entire point of the novel, was lost on me the first two times I read it. I can’t even be embarrassed about that—I was a hormonal teen, what more do you want?
I was more likely to mark the sexy parts and read them aloud to my boy friends (that’s “friends who were boys,” not “romantic boyfriends”) than I was to ponder the wonder of first love. Having experienced that around the same time I first read the book, it should have been a nice parallel for me. Instead, I was way too interested in the naughty stuff Katherine was doing ... that I was decidedly not doing.
2. I get creeped out reading about a teen boy touching a girl’s boobs (and similar sexy stuff).
I dreaded the sex scenes, figuring I’d enjoy them and then be grossed out at myself, like realizing a boy you used to babysit has become a straight-up hottie. But Katherine is much more mature than I was at 17, which makes her sexual antics less taboo.
I wasn’t having sex at 17 because I knew my head would explode. I had the emotional maturity of a rock, but at least I was smart enough to recognize that. Katherine, however, gobbles up every sex and pregnancy pamphlet her Gloria Steinem-esque grandmother sends her.
“Thought these might come in handy,” Grandma writes in the enclosed note. “If you ever need to talk, I’m available. I don’t judge, I just advise.” Katherine reads everything and promptly makes an appointment with Planned Parenthood to get on The Pill.
3. ...But the sex scenes between Katherine and Michael are not full of shame.
Katherine enjoys sex and is not to be embarrassed by the human body. The first time she sees Michael’s penis, it is an introduction. “Katherine ... I’d like you to meet Ralph ... Ralph, this is Katherine. She’s a very good friend of mine.”
As they practice and become more familiar with one another’s bodies, Katherine doesn’t get pregnant or raped. She doesn’t get an STD. She gets an orgasm.
This is not a book that’s trying to scare teens away from sex. It’s a book that looks at sex for what and how it is. She has a good experience with her boyfriend—something that I doubt would have been terribly common in 1975 young adult literature.
Roe v. Wade, the court case that made abortion legal across the country, only happened two years earlier. No matter how much free love the ’70s were known for, this love story is not set in a time of sexual freedom and acceptance.
4. The book touches on gay issues.
Katherine’s best friend Erica is sort-of-but-not-really dating Artie, a boy who thinks he may be gay. Erica has decided she’ll help Artie figure himself out by being as sexually available as possible. Obviously, this does not work out well. The first two times I read this book, this minor plot point made zero impression on me; I had no recollection of it. And now, I want to read an entire book just about Artie.
5. It makes me feel old.
At the start of the book, Katherine is 17 years old. She has a birthday during the course of the novel, as does her mother, who turns 40. Katherine is 14 years younger than I am now. Her mom is nine years older. I am closer in age to the protagonist’s mother than I am to the protagonist! I love my age and take no issue with getting older. But this left me feeling nearly ready for a rocking chair and support hose.
6. Katherine and Michael’s breakup was far-fetched.
When Katherine goes away to camp, she finds herself attracted to another man and doesn’t understand how this could happen when she's in love. Looking back at my high school boyfriends, this was de rigueur; it wasn’t a real relationship unless I had another crush bubbling in the background.
When this ill-timed crush occurred, I, as a teenage girl, ignored it. I let it fester. Then two, three, four months down the line, I broke things off with the boyfriend because, “I just don’t feel the same way anymore.”
But those intervening months were key—I didn’t ditch the guy a week later, à la Katherine. I turned my best friends into my wildly unqualified therapists and worked out every possible outcome. I didn’t break things off with the beau until I’d convinced myself I couldn’t possibly be happy without the new cute guy.
But Katherine? The first time she sees Michael after recognizing she has another crush, she can’t hold it together. She tells him about her feelings for the new guy, he yells at her, he drives away, and they don’t speak again until awkwardly running into each other a few months later.
What teenager has such a healthy, non-obsessive breakup? We don’t see Katherine moon over Michael. We don’t see her analyzing her decision in a petri dish of what-ifs. Katherine has a maturity that 18-year-old me didn’t even realize teens could possess.
In retrospect, all my navel-gazing was fun—and, in the long run, illuminating. Wonder what I'll reread next.