Trying Harder By Suzanne Zuckerman

If it hadn’t been for Mark, Jenifer would have never been asked out by Cliff Moore, the captain of the football team…

Each of the major mass-market teen paperback romance imprints (Sweet Dreams, Wildfire, First Love) carved out their own niche, in terms of both plots and style of cover art. While other series provide an occasional oddball distraction or test out a novel new concept, I sometimes turn up weirdo series that I have no idea why they exist or where they were sold.

Heavenly Romances are among the latter category. I picked up two in an upstate New York thrift shop a few years ago, and neither looked like they had ever been opened. A quick internet search turns up about a half-dozen titles published by EP Dutton under this imprint in 1982 and ’83. Even before reading it, one is struck by the extreme cheapness of the cover art- it looks like a Polaroid. And the “Heavenly” is also a tease. Are they about angels? Christian teens?

The Plot: I really have zero answers, even after reading it. It is mostly notable for the various characters speaking about their family members in weirdly sexual ways, paperback teendom’s meanest Mom, and tons of technical jargon about electrical schematics. So I hope that is what you are looking for if you plan on reading this one.

Jenifer (ONE N, please this is the 1980s!) Roberts is a high school freshman, who is annoyed at having to deal with the expectations everyone has for her following in the footsteps of her golden boy older brother, Mark, “president of the student body, head of the debate society, captain of the tennis team and the star of the school play”

“Don’t forget the honor society,” added her father.

She looked up at her older brother. He stood statuelike, his motion stopped in midflight. He had changed out of his good clothes; he now wore jeans and a tee shirt like hers. But on him, she thought, even that looks like a costume for a Greek god.

I mean, ok, that’s sort of getting into Polly French cousin-dating territory….

Anyway, in this town, the parents all make their children attend EVERY SINGLE Town Council meeting. It is never even revealed what issues are so important, but Jen’s parents and everyone else in town expect their children to be there every week. Jen is annoyed that she has to take Mark’s turn doing the dishes because he and his girlfriend are planning the Freshman Welcome for the first day of school, and Jen is stuck going to Town Council to hear the debate about easements or something.

Her mother entered the kitchen. “Everything’s done out there. While you finish up here, I have to go upstairs to get dressed.”

The interruption broke Jen’s work rhythm. She tried to imagine her mother undressed at the Town Council. The icy marble entry and old splintered wood floors of the municipal building would be very unpleasant to her mother’s pedicured feet. But it was the thought of her mother’s bare bottom sticking on the cold, gray, metal folding chairs that please Jen the most.

Um, that is uh… really detailed. Wow.

The next day at school, Jen has to hear from every single teacher about how much they loved having her brother as a Freshman, but she is relieved to find her fat friend Elaine in the cafeteria. But when Jen goes to save them a table, she is beckoned over to the Cool Kids Table by her brother’s girlfriend, Lenore, and the other cool kids: Candy, Barb, Cliff Moore… It’s like she got inducted into Cool Kids Club without even trying! Or even really wanting to!

Over the next few weeks in the privacy of the basement girls’ bathroom, Candy and Barb teach Jen all about dressing like the cool kids (which in the author’s mind sounds a lot like a middle-aged, middle-manager, which we’ll get to) and wonders of three-tone eyeshadow. Lenore is especially reassuring:

“Mark really loves your new look.”

Oh, yay?

Mark does approve, as does her mother, especially her new outfits of a camel coat, blouse and scarf, which she lends Jen her favorite brooch to wear with. Perfect for a day at high school, or selling real estate!

After the school wins the Big Game, Cliff asks Jen to be his date for the after-party at Barb’s house:

The sting of the autumn wind made her pull the camel-hair jacket closer. She was glad for the dark brown leather gloves that matched her medium heeled shoes and clutch bag.

But Jen is uncertain about hanging out with the older kids:

Candy had said something vague about a disco in the basement- whatever that means. I suppose there is nothing I can do about it now anyway.

About Barb’s basement disco sin-pit? No, probably not.

Actually it’s even better, what Barb’s parents have in the basement is an illegal casino, which the local teens have taken over for their own nefarious purposes:

“We never gamble for money.”

“What do you use?” Jen looked at the game in play. “Oh, I see. Chips. Do the colors mean anything?”

When the play was completed, Cliff turned to Jen. “I’m sorry. I got caught up in the game. I never saw somebody play a purple chip.”

“I asked what the colors mean.”

“In this game… we, uh…” he hesitated. “Well… white is the lowest, then comes blue, red, green and purple. But like I said, I’ve never seen anyone play a purple before…” he was half-whispering.

After much more mystery, Cliff and Jen are invited into the game and extended “credit”, and Jen starts to play a purple chip, but the collective drawn-in breath of the players makes her rethink the idea and instead plays white; when she wins it reveals that “white’ means she has to kiss Cliff and has been playing a very complicated and tedious game of Sex Roulette this whole time.

(We never learn what purple is. I’m guessing beastiality.)

Anyway, Jen is so mad that she leaves Cliff and storms out and down the road to Elaine’s house, where she spends the rest of the day engaged in the very wholesome activity of baking bread with the family.

Sex Casino is basically the highlight of the book. After she and Elaine make up, she joins Elaine and her brother Tim in the Av Club, and infuriates her mother by getting an expensive pixie cut:

“What have you done to yourself now!”

“I had my hair cut.”

“I can see that! You look like Joan of Arc! Do you really expect us to take you to the community concert looking like that?”

“The school auditorium will be dark!”

“Ever since that football player dropped you, you’ve returned to the unwashed look. I have tried to be kind, but this… haircut is deliberate sell-destruction!”

Mrs. Roberts is also mean to Elaine:

“Hello Elaine. What an unusual costume. It covers your figure very nicely.”

Also on the tech crew:

Mike and his girlfriend Suzy, a pair of redheads who looked like twins.

I’m just saying, everyone wants to date their family members in this one.

Apropos of nothing, Jen notes

…absolutely anything and everything could suddenly take on sexual connotations- although she knew it was all talk.

But IS IT REALLY, Jen?

There are lots of descriptions about soldering the wiring in slide projectors and changing gels if you’re into that. Jen thinks quickly during the production of the school play and puts out a very small fire backstage. She is awarded a check for $500 at the school assembly for doing so, which sounds excessive even to me.

She finally gets over old Cliff Moore and admits her crush on Tim:

Tim’s gentle kiss was like a match set to dry paper. Jen felt herself blaze with the passion she had denied herself for months.

Which also seems excessive. But at least she’s not related to Tim, so good?

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9 Responses to Trying Harder By Suzanne Zuckerman

  1. sheesh says:

    It’s revealed toward the end of the book that Mark asked his friends to be nice to Jen and isn’t the dick we thought he was, even defending her to bitchy mom, and it would have been nice to explore that angle. Instead we get Sex Among The A-V Squad.

    Also when I realized that Cliff was quoting The Saga of Jenny at one point, it makes me think he might have another whole variety of chips in his pocket.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Saga_of_Jenny

    • mondomolly says:

      OMG, you’ve read this one! Does Mark actually come clean or is it just implied that he had good intentions and his friends wanted to impress him, though?

      But yes, I also picked up that Cliff was referencing The Saga of Jenny, which is weird for a high school student, but all of the students (aside from dressing like day traders) are constantly using phrases like “close but no cigar” and “if I want to send a message I’ll use Western Union” , so maybe they’re secretly senior citizens undercover.

      Thank you for commenting and assuring me this book really exists and not something my subconscious conjured up!

      Also here is Ginger Rogers doing “Jenny”:

      • sheesh says:

        Cliff gets pissed and says he wishes he would have never promised Mark to be nice to her. So on one hand that’s good…but on another hand, knowing about the whole sex casino game, he kind of pimped his own sister out, ew.

  2. Jen says:

    Hey, just like it’s “not easy being green”, it’s tough being a one “N” Jenifer. Did I get a personalized key chain souvenir at that truck stop when I was 7? Did I, like all of my friends, have a poster on my wall with my name emblazoned in puffy rainbow script? As an adult do I have even one coffee mug with the correct spelling? No. Sigh. I’m OK, though. It hasn’t affected me, at all. I’m fine…juuuuust fine.

    Signed, a 70s one “N” Jenifer

  3. Wow, this one sounds REALLY strange. Guess I’m glad my library didn’t buy this bizarro series back when I was reading every Sweet Dreams book there was — where could they have been sold? Truck stops? Drugstores? Discount bookstores?

  4. Susan says:

    How weird — as usual you turn it into hilarity 🙂 ! Except for the mention of a disco basement, it would be hard to imagine what time frame this was even set in! The beginning sounded like a Full House episode — and we now know the trouble Aunt Becky ended up in … 😉

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