by Sharon Kane
Who is manipulating whom? This is the question I kept asking myself as I read Tender, by Belinda McKeon (2016, Little, Brown and Company). In 1990s Ireland, first-year college student Catherine meets James, who has returned after a year in Germany serving as an assistant to a famous photographer. As their close friendship develops, he confides to her that he is gay, something that much of their society has not yet accepted. Catherine offers James encouragement when he decides to come out to his mother, who does not take the news well. (He wouldn’t even consider telling his father.) But something about their relationship began to worry me when I got to a part where James insists that Catherine come home with him for a weekend and then mocks, chides, and pressures her when she says No. She decides to go home with him.
Catherine continues to support James through letters after he goes away again. Again, I was bothered. James is intense, to the point where I found him controlling. Catherine’s parents tell her he is trouble; I felt that, too, though not for the same reason they rejected him. When James returns, he is constantly around. Catherine tries to protect him, tries to listen and understand when he complains about how hard life is for him as a gay man, tries to improve herself whenever he criticizes her. Both Catherine and I were feeling smothered.
But then James finds friends; James finds ways to fit in; James begins to have some success with meeting men. And Catherine? Catherine finds that she is jealous, possessive, and obsessively in love.
I will stop talking plot here. I think this could be an important story for teens to read; although not at all didactic, it could serve as a cautionary tale. Signs throughout point to an unhealthy relationship–signs that were ignored. As the situation escalated, the relationship turned destructive. This book is for mature readers and belongs in the category of New Adult (for an audience from approximately age 17 to 25). It’s thought provoking, that’s for sure.
psychology; ELA; social studies
appropriate for upper high school grades and beyond