If a bisexual coming-of-age novel like Torn had been written when I was coming of age in the mid-1970s, it would have gone a long way toward helping me feel sane. In fact, if I could have read this book when I was 14 (the age at which we meet the book’s protagonist, Krista McKinley), I probably would have become addicted to this book and carried it with me wherever I went; bisexuals – let alone teenaged bisexuals – get very few reliable toeholds in our society even today.
Torn is a brave and memorable achievement in teen fiction. It is unflinching in its accurate depiction of the curious lust for experience that is basically synonymous with being a teenager. The characters delve into drugs, drinking, and sex just as zealously and carelessly as teenagers do in real life, and they careen into the wall of consequences just as hard. Krista and her friends Carrie, Brandon, Ryan, Nick, and Aeleise (in varying combinations throughout the book) have access to plenty of booze when they want it; they try cocaine and ecstasy; they play football, they’re cheerleaders, they attend the homecoming dance as well as bible study groups; some are victims of incest and rape, while others carefully choose when they will lose their virginity and to whom; they have “co-ed” sleepovers where they kiss and sometimes have sex with each other; they shop a lot and, since this is Southern California, they also go surfing. However, when the characters err in judgment, they get caught and are forced to examine their actions along with their motivations and must somehow make amends. Perhaps most importantly, Torn tackles that complicated identity question of “am I bisexual, or [gay or lesbian], or just experimenting?” with a huge heart and an honest appraisal, and – best yet for bisexuals – the answer resounds with hope for teenagers who find themselves genuinely attracted to both sexes.
The characters in Torn may seem torrid on the surface, yet Lehman has crafted her characters with such kindness and with such attention to realistic detail that they are easy to become addicted to, even as an adult reader. These are insecure gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters who are fiercely devoted to each other, who hold one another accountable for everything.
The few parents depicted in Torn are rich, ineffectual and self-involved. The other parents are curiously absent, with two families being overseen by older brothers. This helps create a world where the teenagers take center stage and are forced to look out for one another. The older brothers (Krista’s brother Marc, a doctor; and Aeleise’s brother Daemon, a pilot, a devout Christian and a thirty-year-old virgin) are so well-grounded in morals and discipline that they wind up being more effective and more respected than most real-life parents.
My one complaint about Torn is that it is too long. The attention paid to the details of what everyone is wearing, eating, or drinking frequently adds too much clutter to the story. Otherwise, Torn is a page-turner whose ending might possibly astound you.
[SPOILER ALERT: Brandon, the closeted surfing champion and the most popular boy in school, realizes that, even while he will always be attracted to boys, he’s in love with his best friend, Krista.]
This is a terrific first novel that deserves an open-minded read. You’ll make fast friends with the teenagers in this book and – if you’re already an adult – you’ll perhaps find yourself feeling friendlier toward the questioning teenager you once were.