When it’s all over, Stella knows that nothing can ever be the same again. Not for Stella. Not for Christopher. And certainly not for Nicholas. Poor Nicholas.
Oh, if only the plot could live up to the cover Scholastic slapped on the 1972 reissue of Swedish writer Inger Brattsröm’s 1964 novel! (Translation by Eve Barwell) So murky! So brown! So font-y!
The Plot: Brattström covers well-trod ground here: teenagers unthinkingly act selfishly, leads to tragedy. I don’t know if the nuance got lost in translation, but the end result is a pretty dull entry in the genre.
The only exceptional aspect of the book is the nonlinear narrative: in a brief prologue we learn that the body of Nicholas, a missing high school student, has been found in a wooded area outside town. One of his classmates, Stella, recalls:
It had all happened so quickly they still couldn’t believe it. One moment it was there, distressing, shattering, inescapable; the next it dissolved, faded into the background. Everything had changed.
It’s a pretty great set up. Don’t you want to know what happened???
The first chapter opens the morning after That Party that Since happened, as Stella and her Popular friends are giggling about the yet-to-be-revealed disaster that happened at Nicholas’s birthday the previous evening:
“Odd that he invited us at all. It must have been sheer masochism, mustn’t it?”
We never learn the details of Nicholas’s “illness” (“it must be something secret and terrible”), but he is partially deaf, socially awkward and has occasional epileptic-like fits. His only friend is leather-jacketed delinquent Christopher, whom parents have been warning their daughters about since grade school.
Nicholas busts in on the bitch-fest to awkwardly thank everyone for coming to his party and loudly ask Stella on a date to see the new Fellini movie (teenagers cannot get enough of those Fellini movies!); Stella is at a loss for words, but Christopher intervenes and explains to Nicholas that Stella has a Popular Boyfriend, embarrassing everyone.
The author takes pains to explain that Stella is not a villain- stuck with a sociologist for a father and social-climbing mother, she tends over-analyze social situations (she makes graphs and charts!) and has an overwhelming desire to just be left alone. Unfortunately, her male classmates find her icy attitude wildly attractive, which just adds to her angst.
Finally, we double back in time yet again, as Stella recalls that it was actually Delinquent Christopher that had invited everyone to Nicholas’s party in the first place. The gang arrives at Nicholas’s house and are surprised to find that he, his younger sister and widowed mother live in a luxurious mansion:
As they came out of the warm half-light of the hall they saw Nicholas and his mother standing beneath the crystal chandelier in the drawing room. Behind them, in the dining room, was the long table, ready laid: yard upon yard of shimmering white tablecloth, glass silver, candles, and, on every plate, a white napkin folded into the shape of a water lily.
Stella and her friends are caught off guard (and underdressed) by the party that Nicholas’s mother has planned for them, which includes a formal dinner, dancing and party games. No one has even brought a present for him, because GAWD WHAT WOULD YOU EVEN BUY THAT WEIRDO ANYWAY??? Stella grimly thinks that this is exactly the kind of party her mother would approve of “for young people”.
By 9 o’clock Stella is already wondering if they been there long enough to exit gracefully; somebody switches the waltzes on the record player for rock and roll, and Stella and her boyfriend slip away to “explore” the mansion. Which is to say, go make-out in one of the many luxuriant drawing rooms. Unfortunately, the other couples get the same idea, and pretty soon the crowd in the ballroom has dwindled to Nicholas, his mother and sister, and Christopher.
It is Christopher that finally goes and rounds up the face-sucking couples:
Soon they were all standing together down in the hall, a tiny group, huddled together and trying to act naturally. Madge’s hair was more untidy than ever, and Barbara kept blinking in the bright light. The men had their hands in their pockets. You could see they were ashamed of themselves and that they were also annoyed.
They awkwardly say their goodbyes to Nicholas and his family and go home.
Really, that’s it? Yes, Stella and her friends acted like jackasses, but after that build up I was expecting someone to at least get a bucket of pig’s blood dumped on them.
The next day (I guess? Maybe two days later? The timeline is getting really confusing at this point) Stella and her friends are planning a party to which Nicholas has most definitely not been invited. Stella is annoyed and distracted, both because Nicholas has called and insisted that he return the scarf that Stella left at the party, and because one of the other girls had called Christopher to come fix an electrical outlet at the clubhouse where the party is being held. Which means, JEEZ, now she’s going to totally have to explain why Nicholas wasn’t invited because Christopher is sure to make a whole big THING about it.
When Nicholas’s mother phones to ask if they have seen her son, the call barely registers with Stella; it isn’t until much later that night, when Christopher shows up to recruit a volunteer search party, does she realize that Nicholas has gone missing. Missing-missing.
While the gang guiltily joins the search of the nearby woods, only Stella and Christopher are personally invested in finding Nicholas, especially as the search drags into the early hours of the morning:
It was like dragging a rake through the woods, a rake with living teeth, pulled along by the hand of an invisible giant. They moved forward in long rows, combing the woods, taking care to keep about thirty feet apart the whole time. It was impossible to keep exactly thirty feet or to keep the rows moving forward at exactly the same pace, and at times they wavered like paper streamers in the wind.
When the search party receives word that the police have found Nicholas’s body in another part of the woods, Christopher takes Stella back to the potato-shanty where he lives with his alcoholic father, and they reflect on the lessons they learned, underlining them in crayon in case the reader dozed off:
“And aren’t we, every single one of us, handicapped in some way or another? We all have our limits and mistakes and inhibitions. That’s what makes us individuals, different from everyone else.”
Thanks, Christopher, it weren’t for you my takeaway would have been “bring a flashlight”.
Sign It Was Written In 1964 Department: “They generally gave each other records on their birthdays. Stella had been given a Sammy Davis record on her seventeenth birthday.”