E.R. Frank's Life Is Funny
Book review by Monica Friedman
Seven Years in the Lives of Eleven Multicultural New York Teens
There is much to wonder over in the interconnected stories of this realistic novel, which explains that life is complicated, painful, frightening, confusing, wonderful, and, above all, funny. Abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, drug) is a thread that runs through everyone’s life, but we can rise above our circumstances. Everybody hurts, but love is enough.
Life is Funny
The organization of this complex book is almost magical. Some characters narrate multiple segments; others show up at surprising moments in other people’s stories. Each character possesses a distinct, unique voice. We open on a biracial girl, China, and her best friends, Ebony, a black girl with a single mother, and Grace, a white girl whose single mother is a recovering alcoholic, an overt racist, and a little bit crazy. Later, China becomes close with Sonia, a Muslim girl whose closeted life affords her as much pain as anyone. The absence of Ebony’s father leads, eventually, to self-mutilation, sexual promiscuity, and, finally, equilibrium. Grace escapes her mother’s grasp to become a professional model, later showing up in Keisha’s story. Keisha’s story blossoms into true romance with Gingerbread. “He’s my heart,” she says of her boyfriend, who copes with extreme ADHD, a result of being born to a crack-addicted mother. His love helps Keisha recover from the pain of a mother who can’t stay off heroin, a brother who sexually molested her.
And so on.
China’s story also introduces Eric, the angry adolescent son of a drug-addicted prostitute, whose outer rage and hatred is mitigated by his relationship with his little brother, Mickey. He knows, “Mickey real smart and he maybe could turn something right if he grow up.” For Mickey, Eric stays in school when he could be hanging out with the gang, shoplifting and smoking weed. For Mickey, Eric develops his talent as an artist.
Monique and Molly are poor girls whose mentally ill mother spends every Sunday counting marbles. They have raised themselves, through their mother’s neglect and Monique’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father. The fallout is depicted in her rocky relationship with Hector, the first man who’s ever respected her, even though she’s pregnant with an abusive drug addict’s child. “I’m so disgusting,” she says, over and over. Class issues are examined as Molly’s pursuit of a better life leads her to work as a nanny for a wealthy family while putting herself through school.
Drew is a rich white boy who’s stuck in public school in the inner city for just a semester, but has been stuck with his father’s violent abuse of his mother his entire life. Sonia must silently grieve the suicide of a boy whose friendship she can reveal to no one. Sam seems confident on the outside, but laments being, “a bastard half spic with a mother who’d rather fingerpaint in some other country than live near you and a father who has to kiss rich white ass daily just so he can make his goddamned rent.” When Sam learns that he can earn money modeling, he meets Grace, who will eventually break his heart.
And on and on.
Life Is Funny
It is Eric’s story, which frames the novel and forms its heart, that shows us the ultimate power of love and redemption. The anger that scares China, Ebony, and Grace is fleshed out to reveal his unconditional love for Mickey and the lengths to which he goes when child welfare separates them. In the book’s last chapter, Mickey and Eric’s salvation in foster care is seen through the eyes of Linnette, a well-off black girl who must determine whether these two strange, inner-city children can take the place of her dead brother.
In E. R. Frank’s Life Is Funny, we learn that life has to be funny. There is too much sorrow and frustration not to laugh. Laughter allows us to form connections with those who help relieve us of our burden and bring joy and light into the darkness.
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