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As Cool As I Am    by Pete Fromm Amazon.com order for
As Cool As I Am
by Pete Fromm
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Shannon Bigham

I find Picador books tend to be well-written contemporary fiction, with original plots that are off the beaten path (in a good way). As Cool As I Am, selected as Book of the Year by the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association, is the gritty coming-of-age story of a young teenager, Lucy Diamond.

Lucy lives in Great Falls, Montana. Her best (and only) friend is a small, scrawny boy named Kenny. Lucy and Kenny spend most of their time at the top of a perilously high jungle gym in the neighborhood playground - although now that Lucy is fourteen and 5'9", she is getting too old and too 'grown up' for the jungle gym. After all, she is now taller than most of the moms who take their young children to the park. But Lucy just does not want to go home to an empty house again. Plus, there are not many other things for a teenager to do, especially during the summer.

Lucy's parents had her when they were teenagers, and are fairly odd. Her father's job takes him on long absences away from home. Her mother has maintained her beauty over the years, although she's beginning to feel like a fading flower, and her feelings are exacerbated by her husband's lengthy absences. When Lucy's father does come home for a stint, his presence seems bigger than life itself although he is always soon out the door again. Lucy and her mother simply return to their regular routine, which slowly but surely develops into one which leaves little place for Lucy's father.

Unfortunately, Lucy is weathering a lot of changes on her own. Her body is changing from her previous stick-thin, boyish figure to that of a young woman's. Lucy tries to hide her changing body and sexuality at first, as she practically seems to want to be a boy, not a girl. She does not seek boys' attention and holds an unrealistic hope that if she looks like a boy, then perhaps her father will stay longer to 'spend time with the son he never had.' All Lucy's efforts are for naught as she spends more time alone or in the company of Kenny. Their friendship turns into a sexual relationship and Lucy's teenage years are unsupervised and turbulent.

Lucy is charging ahead into an uncertain future, and her mother is doing the same but with the desperation of a lonely and beautiful, yet fading woman. While mother and daughter get along for the most part, Lucy feels abandoned by her mother's inadequately explained 'absences' from home. She's angry with her mother and disapproves of her actions and priorities (which are always about herself, never about her daughter), but craves her mother's love and support more than ever. Similarly, Lucy's mother feels 'chained' to the child that she had as a teenager and feels stuck in her marriage, although she loves Lucy and struggles to bridge the ever-widening emotional gap between them.

This wonderful novel is funny at times and poignant at others. It spans the spectrum of emotions that people feel towards their family and those that they love all wrapped up inside Lucy, an angst-ridden, rapidly changing teenage girl with a big heart. While the plot appears simple enough at the onset, it unfolds into a deeply evocative story that reveals Lucy's vulnerabilities as well as those of her mother. Fromm is a talented writer and I look forward to reading more of his books. As Cool As I Am is highly recommended to fans of contemporary fiction, literary fiction, and those who enjoy coming-of-age stories.

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