Maggie and Caroline: Two young women who must suddenly come to terms with their lives…
If Norma Klein’s work pushes the envelope farther than her contemporaries when it comes to dealing with social issues, than Love is One of the Choices is the Norma Kleiniest. Published three years after Judy Blume’s Forever, it deals with the same themes, but manages to pull off the feat of making Blume’s book look quaintly old-fashioned and romantic in its depiction of love and sex.
Progressive and problematic, outdated and forward-thinking, Love is One of the Choices is a bundle of contradictions that I dare you to put down once you start.
The Plot: The initial chapters switch back and forth between Maggie and Caroline, high school seniors at an elite “progressive” school on Manhattan’s upper west side. Though both only children of single parents, their similarities end there. Maggie is the brilliant, outspoken Feminist (definitely capital-F) daughter of a Freudian psychoanalyst, with whom she has shared a warm, egalitarian relationship since her mother’s death 10 years earlier. Caroline is the quiet, dreamy, and artistic daughter of a financially struggling divorcee; her filmmaker father decamped to Paris some years earlier, and she only sees him once a year.
In their own ways, both girls are late-blooming virgins, with Maggie being aggressively cynical about love and romance, while Caroline has a naïve worldview and idealizes marriage and family life.
Maggie meets her match when she is bested at a debate meet by Todd, a boy from a rival school who both respects Maggie’s politics and finds them a turn-on. When she accepts his joking dare to see a porno movie in Times Square (it’s an artistic porno movie) she’s shocked to find herself turned on, by both the movie and Todd.
In the meantime, Caroline starts an affair with Justin Prager, her 28 year old, married biology teacher, who has a 6 year old son and an emotionally troubled wife.
From the perspective of 40 years later, it’s hard to tell exactly how inappropriate or scandalous the latter development is supposed to be: while Justin impresses upon her the importance of keeping it a secret until the end of the school year, when it does come out (we’ll get to that) nobody seems very scandalized and even Caroline’s mother is very accepting of the situation.
The budding relationship between Maggie and Todd is somewhat more relatable, even though Maggie’s father sent her to be fitted for a diaphragm two years previously, and doesn’t blink an eye at having dinner with Maggie and Todd, fully knowing that Todd will be sleeping over. If anything, Maggie becomes annoyed that they are hitting off too well, showboating for her attention:
It suddenly struck Maggie that something about what was happening here was being done for her benefit. Some attempt to show her who was the better man. She didn’t feel at all flattered; she felt horrified.
Although Todd waits until mid-coitus to share that he is also a virgin, Maggie finds that sex exceeds all of her expectations:
“But you know what was really weird- it didn’t hurt!”
“Is it supposed to?”
“Yes! Horribly.” She looked down at the sheets. “There wasn’t even any blood.”
“Should there have been?”
She was amazed at his ignorance “In all the books I’ve read girls bleed like stuck pigs after doing it the first time!”
“I’m glad I didn’t read any of those books,” Todd said uneasily.
Maggie was beginning to get excited, thinking about it. “Wouldn’t it be terrific if it turned out we were both really good at it?” she said.
“What do you mean- good at it?”
“I mean, well, if we really liked it.”
“Well, sure,” said Todd, as though the opposite possibility had never occurred to him.
“Hey, I’m starving. Do you feel hungry?”
“You know what I feel like having?” Maggie said, leaping up. “A hot fudge sundae!”
So they do!
I find the Maggie-and-Todd stuff so delightful that I really hate to have to flip back to trying to figure out how many red flags from Justin Caroline might be ignoring.
It’s unclear how villainous his wife, Ariella, is supposed to be. The daughter of a Nobel Prize winning physicist, she is disappointed that Justin dropped out of the PhD program to teach high school chemistry, and resentful that he’ll never be as famous as her father. She is also emotionally unstable, and has “forced” an open marriage on Justin, flaunting a string of lovers, with whom she disappears with on a moment’s notice for weeks on end. Meanwhile POOR JUSTIN is trapped, forced to be the stable parent of their son, terrified that if he brings up divorce she’ll fight for custody of 6 year old Noah out of spite.
Before Justin and Caroline’s affair is revealed Ariella moves out and they start divorce proceedings amicably enough, but a short time later Caroline receives a late night call:
“Carrie? It’s me,” Justin said. “Listen- Ariella’s killed herself. I have to drive up there early this morning. I just wanted to let your know in case you tried to reach me. I’ll call you as soon as I can.”
Ariella’s suicide is actually quite a bit more gruesome than I remembered: she parked her car on the side of a country road and monoxided herself, and wasn’t found for several days.
Things start moving a lot more quickly after Ariella’s convenient exit: after graduation, Justin asks Caroline to move in with him, and by July they are married. Maggie, generally opposed to marriage on principle, frets over her friend seemingly settling in to a cosseted domestic life.
From this vantage point, it’s hard to tell exactly how “extreme” Maggie’s viewpoints are supposed to seem: in 2017 her not thinking twice about accepting a full scholarship at Cornell while Todd is headed for Columbia just seems like common sense.
It helps that Todd seems like a remarkably enlightened and self-aware young man, even in 2017. When Maggie worries that he’ll become clingy and try to imprison her within the confines of marriage and children, she pushes him to answer what he’d do if she broke up with him:
“What if said I didn’t want us ever to see each other again?”
He thought a moment. “I’d be very, very sad for a long time, but after a while I hope I’d pull myself together and start looking for someone else.”
Maggie started to cry.
While Maggie frets that being with Todd is making her cave on her feminist ideals, it doesn’t seem to be a real danger. He buys her a red lace negligee as a graduation present and she jokes that it’s the first step on the road to ruin “with a passel of kids and a subscription to The Ladies Home Journal.”
More unnerving is the possessiveness that starts to creep in to Justin and Caroline’s relationship. He takes her shopping for a dress for graduation, and only after an argument does her “allow” her to pay for it herself, and even then it was not the kind of frilly lace number she had been dreaming of owning for years, but instead a plain, beige model that makes her look “sophisticated”. Ugh.
And one night when she is unable to fall asleep at his place she gets up and goes home, reveling in the solitude:
Their apartment was empty; her mother was away for the weekend again.
But now she felt peaceful and secure, as though she had escaped from some danger. She made herself a drink of hot milk and honey and sipped it peacefully, glancing through a magazine her mother had left on the table. Then she got into her flannel pajamas, ones she never would have worn with Justin because they were neither sexy nor romantic. As an afterthought, she took the phone off the hook and placed it carefully under a cushion to still its beeping protest.
Of course Justin FREAKS OUT and comes running over at 3 am:
He grabbed her suddenly and for a moment she thought he was going to hit her. Instead he just held her so tightly it hurt.
When he let her go, she was silent. “I didn’t mean it that way,” she said finally.
“How did you mean it then?”
“I told you… I wanted to be here, by myself.”
“Well, you’re coming back with me right now.”
“Then I’ll stay here.”
DUDE. Sometimes ladies just want some time to themselves!
Also 5 minutes later he’s like “Hey… wanna get it on in your childhood bed?”
The last two chapters feature a small time-jump, to the end of the summer, and Maggie and Todd visiting Caroline and Justin at their country house. The revelations come in rapid succession, as Caroline reveals that she is pregnant, which causes Maggie to accuse Justin of ruining her friend’s life, tying her down at 18 so that she ends up as miserable as Ariella; Justin reveals that he’s unhappy that Caroline is pregnant and implies that she manipulated the situation out of her own insecurities; and Maggie reveals that she had an abortion the previous month, and although she doesn’t regret her decision and Todd has been endlessly supportive, it was more physically and emotionally exhausting than she imagined.
Also Justin suggests that she subliminally WANTED to be pregnant and GOD JUST SHUT UP YOU DON’T KNOW MY MIND!!!!
The next day Maggie feels awful, but the two friends are able to mend their friendship because Caroline understands that Maggie just wants her to be happy and reach her full potential and Maggie is self-aware enough to admit that she sometimes sees her way as the only way to TRUE HAPPINESS.
In midst of all THAT, Maggie, who has been kind of sex-crazed ever since her first date with Todd, has an insatiable urge to seduce Justin, which is immediately sated as soon as it seems like he’s up for it. She just want to know if she COULD, not actually do so.
And then, in the plot thread that is left unresolved, Caroline maybe has a miscarriage. Instead of taking her to the hospital Justin waits around all weekend for the country doctor to come back and make a house call. Maggie and Todd decide that they’ve had enough and head back to New York City early, on an ambiguous note:
“When do you think we will get there?”
“Who cares? We’ll have a good trip.”
“Okay,” Maggie said. She hoped he was right.