Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo
Original Australian Title: Good Oil
Alfred A Knopf 2012 (2010)
When Amelia Hayes decides to get a part-time job, working as a cashier at Coles after school, she’s just thinking about having some money of her own and helping to alleviate her mother’s burden. Meeting Chris is a bonus. He’s a uni student, and twenty-one to her fifteen-going-on-sixteen, so she knows she doesn’t stand a chance. She’s not just young, she’s too young. But Chris, who takes the newbies – whom he calls “youngsters” – under his wing, is so personable, friendly, charming even, in a laid-back way, with a smile that won her over from the first moment of meeting him. He talks to her as if she were older, even helps her with her homework and lets her rant into his ear. But Amelia doesn’t deceive herself about having anything more than friendship with him.
Chris is still obsessed with Michaela, who spent a semester at his university in Sydney before going back to Perth. It was long enough for a relationship to develop, one that took over Chris’ life and which he still holds up as the golden standard – even though he learned afterwards that she not only went back to her old boyfriend, Brad, but she had never broken up with him at all. Crushed, and definitely not over it, Chris is on the look-out for the perfect woman, as well as some direction in life. He’s nearly finished his degree, and what then? He still spends his money on beer, his spare time going to parties, doing some weed, or avoiding his patronising, provoking uncle at home, where he still lives with his parents.
Amelia and Chris may be different people at different times in their life, but they are both trying to figure things out in their own way. And as much as they stand alone, independently of each other, they also teach each other a great deal about love, life and getting along, and having a good laugh about it along the way.
Two years after debuting in Australia, Good Oil was finally released in North America under this new name – a title I actually really like, especially considering how much of it is set inside a supermarket (which is Woolies – Woolworths, that is – in the original; since we also have Coles in Australia, I’m not sure why they changed that). Reading this book reminds me how much I love Australian writers, and how differently Australians write. You could never mistake this for an American book, for example. From the tone to the banter to the relationships between people, the way people react to things, how the story evolves and develops to the outcome, everything about it made me feel like I was home again. Pure comfort zone. For that alone, I loved it, no matter how many little things – words and spelling – had been changed.
Amelia narrates, and we quickly get to know her as a fairly shy, reserved, quiet girl who yet has moments of great confidence and courage, and who hides some powerful opinions and empathy behind her “mousy” looks and demeanour. She’s no popular girl, she has one best friend, Penny, and her home life is a bit rocky, not in a sensationalist way but in an everyday, middle class way. Her mother is a teacher at what is known as the worst school in Sydney and always looks tired and miserable. Her father is a director – plays, TV etc. – who is often away from home for months at a time, and when he is home he rarely helps around the house, for which Amelia resents him. Both of her parents smoke inside the house, despite Amelia’s asthma and her two-year-old sister Jessica, and it’s hard not to hate them for that, too. Her older sister has moved away for university in a town outside the city, and Amelia misses her a lot. And now she’s fallen in love with Chris – unrequited love, the most painful kind, as she listens to him discuss his plans for getting Kathy, an older girl who works with them, to go out with him. She’s very realistic, and perfectly captures that time in your adolescence when you were teetering between an almost childlike naiveté, and adult insight.
Chris narrates too, in a way, through diaries he writes. This is how we learn about Michaela and get to hear his thoughts on Amelia herself. It was quite beautiful, watching everything unfold in such a natural, realistic and effortless way – Buzo is an excellent writer and captures the characters, the lifestyle, the humanity within the story so perfectly. Chris is a funny guy, very engaging, and though we never really learn what he looks like – all Amelia really notes is his wonderful smile, and after that his personality takes over – he’s likeable but flawed, and so very human for it. No one is perfect in this book, just as no one is in life, and I think every reader will find someone to identify with here, or at the very least, recognise.
This story reminded me of other Australian books and TV shows, with its nicely balanced mix of realism, heavy issues dealt with with a light touch, personal relationships explored, and humour. There’s a particular flavour of tone and direction that I’ve only ever really found in Australian (and New Zealand) storytelling; read enough of them (or watch our good ABC shows) and you’ll see what I mean. Buzo follows that tradition, adding an excellent story to the canon, one that reminded me also of the YA novels I read as a teen, Aussie books dealing with teens with alcohol abuse problems, teens realising they were gay, all sorts of everyday issues that were explored in this fashion, combining an understated drama with humour (sometimes skipping the humour, but you can’t have everything). Following on from this long tradition of realism, Love and Other Perishable Items is a very mature story, very lifelike, that doesn’t hold back on delving into adolescent and university life – even when it doesn’t bring to mind your own memories, it still feels very familiar.
Flipping between Amelia’s younger, almost tentative narrative voice and Chris’s boisterous, engaging style, Buzo shows her talent at capturing her characters’ idiosyncrasies as much as their everyday mundanity, their unique voices and their personalised thought processes. I loved the way Chris called the supermarket, in true ironic fashion, the Land of Dreams. He had joke names for many things, and without his lively take on life, it would have been a much duller book. If Amelia had fallen for some brooding, moody uni student, it would have made for a much more depressing book, I’m sure. Chris saves the story from slipping too far into morbid territory, and it’s easy to see why Amelia loves him. Here are Chris’ early thoughts on her:
Exhausted and a little in my cups. Worked four to nine this evening, training a New Little on the registers. She’s one of the more interesting New Littles out of the bunch they just hired. Her name is Amelia, and what a funny little youngster she is. She demonstrates an advanced-level single-eyebrow raise. She’s amusing – all frizzy-haired and fiery. I suspect she can, like, construct sentences and read books. Here’s hoping she will go a little way toward Amelia-rating the vacuousness of her chain-smoking fifteen-year-old cohorts (Ameliorate – get it? Oh, there’s nothing like your own jokes, is there?) She’s a healthy mess of contradictions. Sense of humor? Check. Very articulate for a youngster. She hasn’t developed the ability to see past her own nose yet – takes everything seriously. Oh, adolescence, how much I don’t miss you. She’s smart and has reason to carry herself well. But she has this way of crossing her arms, gripping her elbows and looking down and sideways that screams “ill at ease!” to the world. Maybe all she needs is a good sensei to instruct her in the ways of, like, stuff. Maybe I’m the man for the job. Or maybe I couldn’t be bothered. [pp.42-43]
One of the things I loved was that Chris’s narrative doesn’t just echo Amelia’s but from his perspective – he shares things that she didn’t, and vice versa. Little details or incidents that were more important to one of them than the other. Also, telling the story this way fleshes it out and, especially, fleshes Chris out. Too often, the male love interest in YA stories remains almost transparent throughout a book and you can’t see the appeal, let alone the chemistry. Here, there’s buckets of tension and great atmosphere. The story skirts close to a moral grey area and could have gone south in an icky way, but following that realistic trajectory, it doesn’t. The ending is very right and even hopeful, and makes you like the two of them even more.
I did, on the other hand, have a wee struggle getting into it at first. It starts off slow. It took me a while to get a “feel” for Amelia, and to connect with her – sometimes the realistic style can be a bit off-putting, and sometimes it’s a matter of flow, or lack of. Amelia narrates, at first, a bit all-over-the-place, and it takes her a while to settle down. Once Chris enters the picture – and when we start hearing his voice – things pick up quickly, though not plot-wise. This is a character-based story, not a plot-based one, which I liked. I also liked their debates about feminism, and I really liked Amelia’s argument that feminism had made her mother the tired, unhappy, over-reached person she is in the story – though I was surprised to hear Buzo, through the characters, say that Australia men hadn’t picked up the slack. I know it’s been a long time since I lived there (soon to be rectified, yay!), but I had always been proud that Aussie men were more involved in running a household and a family than they used to be. Has that slowed down, stopped even? So disappointing. I hold out hope for us yet.
Overall, a truly wonderful story with a heart of gold – no really, corniness aside, it does! An artfully constructed, engagingly realistic and always hopeful story about two people finding their way in life, about the best kind of friendship and the first blush of love. A growing-up story, a growing-pains story, a coming-of-age story for both Amelia and Chris, one that takes an adult reader back in time and will, no doubt, really click with an adolescent one. Definitely recommended.
“From page two into this book, a goofy grin formed on my lips and played there until I finished it. [...] Desperately delightful, Good Oil was a different kind of love story. One of soul searching, acceptance and friendship.” The Unread Reader
“Funny and true and sophisticated and charming and brilliantly Australian. Reading this book just felt like a breath of fresh air. I completely fell in love with it, it struck a chord with me and I know this book will resonate for a long time. In fact, I already can’t wait to re-visit it.”
“This isn’t your typical love story; it’s honest, bittersweet and insightful with the characters lending you their lives to let you look into your own.” The Book Addict
“This book fooled and entertained me tremendously. I was looking for one thing and it totally took me in another direction. While I can’t say that this book exceeded my expectations, I can say that it did not disappoint me either. Really, it was breath of fresh, sweet air that surprised me, but also left too quickly. [...] It’s written in a genuine way that reminds us time and time again that life is not fair and not everything will go how we want it to.” Words, Pages and Books
Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.