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The Geography of Girlhood    by Kirsten Smith order for
Geography of Girlhood
by Kirsten Smith
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Geography of Girlhood - a novel told as a series of poems in sections entitled 'marine life', 'low tide', 'the lay of the land', 'bodies of water', 'the river of sixteen', 'the wrong road out of town', and 'the flanks of home' - takes its narrator Penny Morrow from age fourteen to eighteen. It begins, 'Clam season is about to start / and ninth grade is almost over / and I have rowed myself / out to the middle of the bay so I can see the place I live ... small town, small town. / One day ...'

We gradually learn things about this young woman - that her mother, 'a dreamboat that drifted away', left when she was six-years-old and that she thinks about her often. We find out that loner Denise and sociable Elaine are Penny's best friends and that she is the one in the middle - a series of free verse notes passed in class make that very clear. Penny shares insecurity about her looks and envy of her sister Tara. Teen angst is expressed beautifully, as in 'fourteen is a joke that no one gets'; or when Penny talkes of standing on the wall 'in a free-fall shame spiral' at a dance; or when she anticipates high school as 'a faraway land of them'.

Penny tells of being understudy for lead in a play of The Diary of Anne Frank. She falls into the role when the star gets bronchitis, but falls out of it just as fast, and becomes 'The Girl Randall Faber Likes.' She makes lip gloss choices for the well publicized 'First Kiss', has a crush on Jenny Arnold's boyfriend, that causes her to fear the start of school all summer, and later one on her history teacher. Her father gets a vegan marine biologist girlfriend named Susan and marries her, giving Penny a younger, nerdy stepbrother, Spencer. She weathers the death of a classmate, a bad period in her dad's marriage, and a relationship that goes sour. She runs away and returns.

The Geography of Girlhood maps a young woman's growing up years with delightful insights - such as 'parties are basically just / School With Booze', and 'How come families are full of people that have no clue how they make each other feel?' Penny finally does mature enough to discard her mother's world globe and map her own voyage through life.

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