Up In Seth’s Room By Norma Fox Mazer

How can she convince him to wait until they are both ready?

sethsroom

Norma Mazer (arguably the more famous half of the YA Mazers) output was at its height during the 1970s and 80s, primetime for dealing with sex, drugs, terrible parents and other difficult situations. In comparison to some of her other work, this one is less weird and salacious, although the heroine’s attempts to assert her own personality and preferences wear pretty well 35+ years later.

The Plot: 15 year old Finn Rousseau has been playing peacemaker in her working-class Syracuse, NY family ever since her older sister Maggie moved out to “shack up” with her boyfriend, much to their parents’ disapproval. While they haven’t outright forbidden Finn to see her sister, they both constantly bemoan the fact that Maggie is bringing disgrace upon their family.

Maggie’s boyfriend, Jim, seems pretty benign: a hard-working medical student and all-round nice guy. The trouble starts when Seth, Jim’s 19 year old brother, moves in with the couple and he and Finn have an instantaneous mutual attraction.

Unlike his industrious brother, Seth is a high school drop-out, who has spent the past year hitchhiking around the country and trying out various jobs. Although definitely smart enough to go to college and achieve his father’s dream of becoming a lawyer, Seth has moved to Syracuse to get a job only long enough to save up enough money to buy a farm in Vermont.

Finn’s friends and family discourage her pursuit of Seth, because he is too old, lacks traditional ambition and comes from the kind of family that approves of “shacking up”. They would much rather see her with class lothario Jerry Demas, who is Eddie Haskall-like in his come-ons:

“I’ve been thinking about you, babes,” Jerry said. “Guess where I am right now. Lying here on my bed.” He dropped his voice. “Wish you were here.”

Although she made out with Jerry at a New Year’s Eve party, Finn regards him as rather ridiculous and resents the fact that her BFF, Vida, keeps pushing them together so they can double-date with her steady, Paul.

While Finn remains firm in her convictions that she’s not ready to go “all the way” with anyone, the messages about sex are maddeningly contradictory, as Vida warns her that because Seth is older and more experienced he’ll expect more, while continuing to try to convince her to give in to Jerry’s advances, while also admitting that sex with Paul isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be:

“We did it. I didn’t feel like it, but Paul did. After, Finn, I felt so depressed, and Paul didn’t even notice. That made it even worse.”

“Why’d you do it if you didn’t want to?”

“You don’t know, do you?” Vida said. “You’ll find out. You can’t just say yes one day, and no thank you the next.”

After a string of chance meetings, Finn and Seth start to secretly see each other, usually at his job at a local cafeteria. They are able to get away with sneaking around because Finn’s mother works afternoons and her father is a long-haul trucker, away for weeks at a time. Finn is wracked with guilt about lying to her mother, but when her parents figure it out, they forbid her from seeing Seth.

Finn expects her sister to support their relationship, but Maggie reveals that she is a lot more conventional than Finn expected:

“I’ve thought it over, and I’m not going to help you, in anyway, break the rules Mom and Dad set down. I happen to think that they’re more right than wrong. My advice to you is to cool it. Just do what Mom and Dad say.”

After a fight with his brother regarding the situation, Seth packs up and moves to the titular rented room across town, excited that he and Finn will now have some privacy.

But the nay-sayers haven’t been all wrong: Finn still isn’t ready to have sex, and it causes tension in their relationship, culminating in a fight and screamed accusations of frigidity:

“You don’t even know what you’re missing! Do you think there’s something nasty about making love? The whole world’s been doing it for ten million years. It ought to be a proven thing, by now.”

“Prove it with someone else,” she choked. “The way I heard it, both people are supposed to want to.”

“And the way I heard it,” he snapped back, “girls aren’t playing prude any more.”

She was stunned. It was all over between them. All over. Just like the stories- where if the boy couldn’t get what he wanted, he turned nasty and blamed the girl.

When Seth eventually comes around to apologize, Finn doesn’t let him off the hook, and maybe he gains some self-awareness:

“The macho thing to do with a girl is never take no for an answer. Just keep trying. Wear her down one way or another.”

“That’s ugly,” she said.

“I know,” he said. “I’ve never really thought about it before.”

Finn and Seth reconcile (and the sisters reconcile with each other and their parents), and Finn and Seth spend the spring doing vaguely-described not-intercourse stuff, having presumably found a happy medium with enthusiastic consent… until Seth gets an offer to go in on a farm with his Hippie friends in Vermont, and the couple sadly parts, because he’s like the wind, babes.

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6 Responses to Up In Seth’s Room By Norma Fox Mazer

  1. I have this sitting on my shelf right now. Never read it, and I have a few books ahead of it in the pipeline, but I will get to it soon. Before Xmas at that latest!

    • mondomolly says:

      I thought it was okay- not nearly as scandalous as the cover would lead you to believe, and it really does try to deal with teenage, female desire and sexuality in a serious way. Would love to hear your thoughts on it when you read it!

  2. Kristen says:

    I was a Norma Fox Mazer fangirl back in the 90s. Read every book she’d written up until then and loved every character, which was the main reason I liked her work so much. Though I related the most with Rachel from After the Rain, I think that Finn was my favorite Mazer character, even though in retrospect I think the plot is a little silly (I mean, virtual virginity?). And what’s more, back then I wanted Finn to stay with Seth, thought it was a great love story. Now, however, I wonder if she should have even taken him back after he almost raped her. And today, I wonder if the same book would take a completely different vibe and be more a book about date rape than a love story (as the title is actually Up in Seth’s Room: A Love Story, I believe).

    • mondomolly says:

      I have really mixed feelings about their relationship- I think part of it is that 15 and 19 seem much farther apart now than they seemed in 1979. And I really don’t know what to make of Seth sometimes, he’s constantly genuinely apologizing and taking accountability for his actions… but he is also *constantly* doing that. It really all falls on Finn to put the breaks on the relationship.

      Interesting! It looks like the hardcover had the “a love story” subtitle, but it got droppped for the paperback reprints (at least the ones I could dig up on line).

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. Okay, I’ve read it. And I have to say, I’m not much impressed. I expected a lot more passion. The regard many women in my age group have for this book puts it right up there with “Forever” and the works of Norma Klein in the Teenagers Doin’ It In the 1970s repertoire. But it doesn’t seem like a love story to me. It gets so bogged down in the power struggle between Finn and her parents, and then the power struggle between Finn and Seth, that there’s no energy left for romance. “I want to see him.” “You’re not allowed to see him.” “But I want to see him.” Then she sees him: “Let’s do it.” “I don’t want to do it.” “What’s wrong with you — let’s do it!” It’s almost all conflict, and I can’t grok what there is between these two that’s worth constant conflict. It’s all so downbeat, even when they’re together. Finn shows up miserable and leaves miserable. And I’m unclear on what Finn’s status was with her parents in that last chapter. Did they accept her seeing Seth, or was she still sneaking around?

    The writing style is not all that, either. I’ve read “Dear Bill, Remember Me?” and liked it a lot; thought NFM had a real way with words. This, however, didn’t have a real flow to it. Was it her first novel? It’s also very seventies, in a way that bugs. Recently, I read another seventies-YA that I’d heard of but never tried: “Walk Beside Me, Be My Friend” by Joan Oppenheimer. And in both cases, I was cringing to see these teen girl characters having meltdowns because their parents, or any adults, dared to impose OMG RULES, like it was soooooo unfair that they could only get out of life what they put into it. In one of the *numerous* scenes with Seth trying to get into Finn’s pants, she grumbles, “You think I’m afraid to do what my parents are afraid I’m *not* afraid to do.” And maybe I’m old, but I can’t help thinking, “Maybe your parents are right. Maybe you won’t shrivel up and die if you can’t see this clown. What do you guys do together besides not-have sex that’s so inspiring?”

    Which brings me to my next point. What IS the appeal of Seth, besides his looks? I went into this thinking that he must have a deep philosophy of life, and perhaps a creative outlet like art or music, or a skill, like being a mechanic. All he offers is a vague dream of “farming” (I give him a month in New Hampshire before he gives up and hits the road again) and an attitude that he deserves what he wants for no reason except wanting it. And for that matter, what does Finn have going for her? Katherine, in “Forever”, is a more developed character, and she’s not deep, per se. Finn doesn’t seem to have changed by the end, but then, how could I tell, when she was such a cipher to begin with?

    And finally, it took me a few chapters before I had it set in my mind that “Finn” was the girl!

    • mondomolly says:

      Thanks for checking back in! I definitely agree, compared to “Dear Bill…” this seems pretty toothless. Like I said, I want to give it points for at least trying to talk about sex and desire from a teenage girls point of view… but Seth isn’t that great. And Finn isn’t very well developed as a character, especially since we’re getting her POV.

      I did like that Vida has sex with her boyfriend and breaks up with him and her life isn’t ruined, and I thought that Jerry was well done as a character (although a very minor character).

      I’m trying to think of other authors who have handled the Teenagers Doin’ It genre better- definitely Blume with Forever, and NOrma Klein with Love Is One of the Choices, which definitely maintains its shock value 40 years on. I actually have the Joan Oppenheimer novel, but I haven’t read it yet, I’ll have to dig it out for the new year!

      Thanks for commenting!

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