Jul/Aug 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Poetry of High School

Review by Margaret Towers

The Wandora Unit.
Jessy Randall.
Delacorte. 2009. 225 pp.
ISBN 9780385733403.

According to author Jessy Randall, The Wandora Unit is a novel for poetry. It features the fictional co-editors of a high school poetry magazine, "Galaxy" and while the book traces the unraveling of their friendship, it also follows the "Galaxy" staff's weekly discussions of student poetry submissions. At the end of the novel are twenty-one poems accepted for publication in the fictional "Galaxy." These are genuine poems written by Randall's high school friends when they were teenagers, and most actually appeared in their literary magazine, co-edited by Randall more than twenty years ago.

The poems' placement allows them to be read or ignored, but the funny and insightful commentary within the book will pique most readers' curiosity. My guess is that many who normally would not pick up a book of poems will read these—and enjoy the experience!

The Wandora Unit is told mainly from the perspective of Dora Nussbaum, a charming, introspective teenager who is both arrogant and insecure. She is loath to be friends with classmates who spend time in the girls room applying make-up and curling their hair, but is brought to tears by the school bus driver who complains she talks too much and too loudly. She gives voice to teenage angst in several way: "If only I could be in a place where no one could hear me or see me, and I wouldn't bother anyone, I could sing my head off, really let everything that is in me out and it would come out right."

Dora's obtains much of identity through her relationship with her best friend and "Galaxy" co-editor Wanda Lowell. So close they are dubbed the "Wandora Unit," Wanda and Dora think alike, look alike, even dream alike, but the relationship is unsustainable. Loosely chronological, the book focuses on Wanda and Dora's senior year in high school. We follow them, their close friends Simon, Ray and Josh, the "Galaxy" staff and contributors; and boyfriends Norris and Ernie through a year of literary meetings, phone calls, after-school activities, petty squabbles, parties, and romantic jealousies, make-ups and break-ups.

During this seminal year, Dora and boyfriend Ernie lose their virginity. The description of this experience, from the purchase and application of condoms, to nervous and unsuccessful attempts, to the self-satisfaction on completion, might make some parents squirm, but its authenticity rings true. Overlaying all the other relationships in the book is however, the inevitable and heart-rending break-up of Wanda and Dora. Through commentary from friends and boyfriends, Randall gives us many possible but conflicting reasons for this, including jealousy, the pretense of being the same, and one big argument. It is left to the reader to come to his or her own conclusion. The reason is really insignificant, though. The end of their relationship underscores a theme in the book of impermanence and inevitable change, poignantly felt by Dora as the seniors contemplate their college choices. She says, "I feel like I'm doing my best to stay where I am and not slip backward, but they are all flying off to different people, across oceans, into other languages."

The books' construction is highly original from vignettes of Dora's day-to-day high school experiences interspersed with flashbacks, journal entries, "Galaxy" poetry discussions, and the retrospective commentary from friends on what happened to Dora and Wanda. We are also often treated to a hilarious stream of consciousness from "Galaxy" staff, typewritten (yes, literally, with no spell-check) on scrolls of paper towels: "Why do peoplye fall in love/? Becasuse they are stiupid Because they need a date to the prom You gusys are both wrogn people fall in love to find out each other's faults..."

Categorized as YA, The Wandora Unit is equally adult in its exploration of sexual experimentation, insecurity, arrogance, alienation, jealousy, and change. Randall, a published poet, whose collection of poems, A Day in Boyland (Ghost Road Press), was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award, has written a comical, heart-breaking and lyrical novel of love gained and lost. In Dora, she has also created my best new fictional friend.


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