It’s Not What You Expect By Norma Klein

Suddenly, summer becomes a time of self-discovery…


Norma Klein is best known for her controversy-courting YA novels of the 1970s; in books like Angel Face and Love is One of the Choices, the teenaged protagonists deal regularly with drugs, sex, abortions, terrible parents.

This week’s volume is somewhat tamer in terms of content, perhaps targeted at a slightly younger demographic, and featuring slightly younger main characters. Most of the heavy-duty ISSUES are reserved for the parents and older siblings here.

The Plot: Before the book opens, the father of 14-year-old twins Carla and Oliver Simon has moved out of their small-town Massachusetts home and into an apartment in Manhattan; in full mid-life crisis mode, he needs to “find himself” and finally write that novel.

Carla and Oliver had decided not to attend summer camp, worried about leaving their mother alone and bereft with their college-aged older brother, Ralph, whom the twins regard as kind of a meathead.

Bored, with the whole summer stretching out before them, Oliver hits upon the idea of using his interest in gourmet cooking to open a restaurant in the ski lodge adjacent to their property, since it is closed for the season, reasoning:

“Look, we’re too far from Boston and there is no place to eat around here- and there is plenty of people money, or guys that want to take girls out on dates.”

Oliver (“He’s fourteen, like me, but he looks about thirty years old… Somehow he looks like a bachelor. I don’t know exactly what I mean by that, but you just know by looking at Oliver that he will always be a bachelor. He’ll grow up and have this very neat apartment with a huge baby grand piano…”) devises a very 70s concept restaurant with candlelight, black napkins, occasional chamber music night furnished by Carla and her orchestra pals, and a prix-fixe menu right out of Playboy or Cosmopolitan: melon and prosciutto, coquilles St. Jacques, trout amandine, steak Bearnaise and lemon chicken. For dessert, “fresh fruit with some liqueur poured over it”.

Ralph proves not to be so useless after all, skillfully negotiating use of the ski lodge with their neighbors, including drawing up a contract with the help of his college roommate’s father, who happens to be a lawyer. They consider a number of French-inspired names for the enterprise  (L’Alouette, Au Flanc de Coteau, Au Claire de la Lune)  before finally settling on a Cote de Chez Simon, “after Proust”.

Oliver will be the chef, and Carla will serve as the maître d’hôtel; they hire on several classmates and Ralph’s girlfriend as waitstaff. After a blockbuster opening night, business is slow, but the twins settle into a routine and work on building up clientele.

They also spend time worrying about their parents: Dad has made no promises about coming home, and their aunt speculates that he might have run off with one of the “hippie chicks” that fawn over him in his position as a counselor at the local college:

I will say that people who wish to flatter him say he looks like George C. Scott and Albert Camus. Of all these compliments, I might add, he always feels best when people say he is like Albert Camus. Camus is dad’s god and he even has a trench coat like the one Camus is always wearing in the photo on the back of his books.

Mom, on the other hand, is sort of an asexual pixie, a full-time housewife with some talent but no ambition, who does things like paint elaborate murals for her children’s bedrooms. Before they split, she took a part-time job dressing in a chicken costume to promote the local farmer’s market. While not stated explicitly, this probably had something to do with dad running away to find himself.

The twins decided to crash in on their father for a night, so they can go to Bloomingdale’s and buy madeleine pans for the restaurant, and he somewhat hesitantly agrees to host them at his white-vinyl decorated bachelor pad. But after he shares a take-out pizza with them, he announces that he has to “go out” and leaves for the night.

Klein misses an opportunity here, I was really hoping that Dad’s issue was that he realized he was gay and had to leave his children to attend that big disco-orgy in the Village, but late that night Carla receives a call from a woman who identifies herself as his “friend” Frances.

Carla also comes across his NOVEL and is shocked to find out that it is terrible. She shares the news with Oliver, who shrugs it off- what did you expect?

They do get Dad to agree to come up to their restaurant, and he brings the mysterious Frances with him, and Carla is shocked to see that she’s just as old as their mother, and not a bit glamorous. Around this same time, she accidentally sees her mother canoodling on the family couch with Melrose Pfeffer (AWESOMELY PREPPY NAME), the father of two of their waitresses, whose wife is a well-known artist who is in a mental hospital.

Later that summer, Mrs. Pfeffer will return home, and the twins are invited to visit and view her paintings. Mrs. Pfeffer will voice her wish that she would like to get to know Mrs. Simon, as they are both artistic types.

But the main crisis at hand as the summer ends is that Oliver learns that Ralph’s long-time girlfriend, Sara Lee, is pregnant and plans on going to New York for an abortion. Oliver feels that since Ralph and Sara Lee have contributed so much to their enterprise, they should pay for the abortion out of the profits from the restaurant. While Carla eventually agrees, she’s unhappy about it:

It just seems like this whole summer everyone is all full of these problems and I’m supposed to sit here and be so sympathetic just because, supposedly, my life is so calm and lovely and free from woe. That is mean, let’s face it. I’m really a mean person.

Sara Lee and Ralph go off to New York to have their safe and legal abortion, and Carla blurts out the whole thing to her mother, who is also very understanding, and tells Carla about how she had an abortion in college, before she met her husband, and her boyfriend had died of Hodgkin Disease (DRAMATIC).

And at the end of summer Sad Dad returns home, having failed as a novelist. Mom is philosophical about everything:

“Maybe I’ve just seen too many people who achieved things- including the kinds of things Dad thinks will make him happy- and they’re not in such great shape.”

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5 Responses to It’s Not What You Expect By Norma Klein

  1. Sheesh says:

    This sent me down the rabbit hole to read Give Me One Good Reason. Arrrrgh, what a pretentious piece of shit.

  2. ninyabruja says:

    How so? My impression of Klein is that she was very matter of fact in her writing.

    Ms. excerpted INWYE and Mom the Wolf Man and Me as stories for free children in the early 70s.

    The plot of her The Queen of the What Ifs is similar and includes her daughter’s poetry.

  3. casadega says:

    I have read and re-read Norma Klein since I was a young teen, and I love her work, but to be honest I can see what you mean by pretentious. Her characters are always upper class white teens living in huge Manhattan apartments, and have always been accepted into Ivy League colleges as seniors in prestigious private high schools. They use words like “insouciant” and “magnanimous” in casual conversation. They go to operas and ballets.They get after school jobs in chemistry labs or feminist bookstores, and they’re often classical musicians or artists. When I was thirteen or so I fully expected my life to be like this at age eighteen 🙂 Now that I’m a lot older than 18, some of these characters make me roll my eyes… but I still love the books, lol.

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