Review: Forever, by Judy Blume

I recently re-read a childhood favorite, A Wrinkle In Time, and didn’t feel it aged well at all. So, on a whim, I decided to re-read another favorite, this time from my middle school years, Judy Blume’s Forever. **Spoilers ahead.**

As Blume says,

This book was first published in 1975. My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970’s), sometimes even death. Lies. Secrets. At least one life ruined. Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly.

This was the cover I had:

That’s Katherine Danziger, a New Jersey suburb high school senior. Look at that blond hair! That pert nose! And that locket? That’s from her boyfriend Michael, a high school senior in the next town. In the book, the necklace was a silver disk that was engraved with “Katherine” on the front, and “Michael …  Forever” on the back. *swoon*

Here’s the first page or so:

Sybil Davison has a genius I.Q. and has been laid by at least six different guys. She told me herself, the last time she was visiting her cousin, Erica, who is my good friend. Erica says this is because of Sybil’s fat problem and her need to feel loved — the getting laid part, that is. The genius I.Q. is just luck or genes or something. I’m not sure that either explanation is 100 percent right but generally Erica is very good at analyzing people.

I don’t know Sybil that well since she lives in Summit and we live in Westfield. Erica and I decided to go to her Ne w Year’s party at the last minute for two reasons — one, because that’s when she invited us, and, two, we had noth¬ing better to do.

It turned out to be a fondue party. There were maybe twenty of us sitting on the floor around a low table in Sybil’s family room. On the table were a couple of big pots of steaming liquid Swiss cheese and baskets of bread chunks. Each of us had a long two-pronged fork, to spear the bread, then dip it into the cheese. It tasted pretty good. I had gotten about two bites when this guy said, “You’ve got some on your chin.”

He was on Erica’s other side, sort of leaning across her. “You want me to wipe it off?” He held out his napkin.

I couldn’t tell if he was putting me on or what. So I told him, “I can wipe my own chin,” and I tried to swallow the bread that was still in my mouth.

“I’m Michael Wagner,” he said.

“So?” I answered, as Erica shot me a look.

She introduced herself to Michael, then tapped me on the head and said, “This idiot is my friend, Katherine. Don’t mind her . . . she’s a little strange.”

“I noticed,” Michael said. He wore glasses, had a lot of reddish-blond hair and a small mole on his left cheek. For some crazy reason I thought about touching it.

Forever, which deals frankly sexual intercourse, birth control, pregnancy, and STDs, was met with controversy when it was published, and continues to face censorship threats (as recently as 2010 in Florida). It is a relatively short, simple story, with a tight focus on Kath and Michael’s romance, beginning New Year’s Eve their senior year of high school, and ending that summer. Forever is written in the first person, from Kath’s point of view. Back then, she functioned, for me (like her, a white heterosexual suburban girl), as a bit of a placeholder. Rereading it, I can see that Kath is sensible, cautious, caring, and average in intelligence and ability. She’s a tennis player, a modern dancer, and a candy striper. Rereading it, a line stood out that I had not remembered. When Michael’s father asks her what she wants to do, she answers:

“I want to be happy,” I told him. “And make other people happy too.”

Kath has a loving, intact nuclear family: mom is a children’s librarian, dad is a pharmacist, and little sis Jamie is an artistic prodigy. Her grandmother and grandfather are lawyers, but “Grandma is too busy with politics and Planned Parenthood and NOW to see many clients.” When Michael first meets her family, they are hooking a rug together. The walls are painted white (this was unusual in the US in the 70s, when wallpaper was the thing), and Jamie’s art hangs everywhere.

I read Forever in seventh grade, when I was struggling with my own family issues. I envied, really envied with a force I could practically taste, Kath and her perfect family. On a reread, I thought the Danzigers might come off as too perfect, and I guess to some they will. But I think the close relationship worked for the story. The tension when Katherine disagreed with her parents over her relationship with Michael was real, and I loved it that it was hearing her mother making love that led Kath to expect and work for her own sexual pleasure:

and I moved with him, again and again and again—and at last, I came. I came right before Michael and as I did I made noises, just like my mother. Michael did too.

It’s true that there are many references in Forever that date it. I’ve already mentioned hooking rugs. On their first date, Katherine dresses carefully, 1970s style:

Jamie had embroidered my jeans with tiny mushrooms and I’d bought a light blue sweater to go with them.

Michael and Katherine are “going together”, not “dating.” They “make out.” They play “records” at a “fondue party.” The big fear is pregnancy, not so much STDs, and instead of “STD” or “STI”, we have “the clap.” No HIV, of course. The funniest bit is that Mr. Danziger has to restrict the girls to 15 minutes each on the phone, to give everybody a turn! I doubt teens today can fathom having to wait for someone to get off the phone.

One very depressing element of reading Forever is the sense you get reading it that the characters believe that battles over abortion, birth control and the sexual double standard have been won. Kath and her friend speak bluntly and unselfconsciously of getting an abortion if they need one, and there is no sense of shame, worry about parental consent laws, discussion of how to find clinics, or concerns about get around clinic protesters. When Katherine needs birth control, a Planned Parenthood is easy to find. When one of their friends becomes pregnant and decides to continue with the pregnancy, it’s about “wanting to have the experience”, not an objection to abortion. As Kath says,

In the old days girls were divided into two groups—those who did and those who didn’t. My mother told me that. Nice girls didn’t, naturally. They were the ones boys wanted to marry. I’m glad those days are over but I still get angry when older people assume that everyone in my generation screws around.

One thing that everyone remembers about Forever is that Michael calls his penis “Ralph.” From a 2005 interview:

But for those of us who grew up with it, its significance can perhaps best be measured by one odd and lasting side-effect of its popularity: the consigning of the name Ralph – which is what Michael memorably decides to name his penis – to the dustbin of history. “I’ve heard from several young men who say: ‘Judy, how could you do this to me?'” Blume admits. “I apologise to all of them. It’s nothing personal.”

Honestly, it is silly, but Kath and Michael know it’s silly. And, as a romance reader, I have seen much, much worse when it comes to the personification of a penis. Michael is more insistent and motivated to have sex than Kath, but it comes off as less of a gender thing than a reflection of their different personalities. Michael is a little wilder, a little more experienced, an occasional pot smoker with a messy room. Katherine is the classic older child —  organized, responsible, thoughtful — but her sexual desire is just as strong.

The sex itself is not particularly titillating. Michael has age-appropriate trouble with patience, and there’s a lot of fumbling for both of them. It’s a fairly conservative book in that sex is viewed by pretty much everyone as something to do with someone you care about, never just for pleasure.

The portrayal of their relationship is absolutely sweet, genuine, and heartbreaking, from the moment Michael wipes the fondue off Kath’s chin at the New Years party, to their angry breakup in a motel that summer.  It took me right back to that blind intensity of first love. It’s a spare book in many ways —  mostly dialogue, action statements, and stylistically it sometimes reads almost like a newspaper article — but Blume manages to work in some, erm, motifs that work really well to add emotional resonance. The title “Forever” is put to wonderful use. Kath notices a question on a pamphlet, “Have you thought about how this relationship will end?” that comes back to haunt her. And, reading it as an adult, I noticed the way death – the death of Kath’s grandparents — serves as a counterpoint to any dreams of “forever” for mere mortals.

There is also a friend of Michael’s, Artie, who suffers from depression and attempts suicide. I had completely forgotten about Artie. While his plight adds some tragic depth to the story, his character is not really fleshed out. There are no non-white, non-middle class, or non-heterosexual characters, and although most of the characters are Jewish, this is never mentioned explicitly in the text. Sybil’s “fat problem” is pretty callously described a few times in the text, another reminder of how things have changed. I would not expect that with a YA novel today (but could be way off base on that). It’s interesting that when this was published there was no YA category. I wonder where it got shelved? Next to Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret?

Katherine, Michael and pretty much everyone in the novel is a model of good behavior. Even the guy Katherine meets (a senior at Northwestern with a mustache!!) at summer camp refuses to kiss her until she breaks it off with Michael. And there’s a good amount of sex ed in the book. So, yes, there is more than a bit of the After School Special here. I could see that annoying some readers, but I honestly felt it worked with the story. Then again, I re-read this book with a lot of nostalgia, so you may not be able to trust anything I write here.

Rereading Forever was a fantastic treat. Unfortunately, there is no digital version of this book. I found my old copy, with sexy pages folded over, in with my junior high yearbooks. Lots of wear and mildew. But what a great evening resulted from that dusty sojourn.

14 responses

  1. I had that cover,too! Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy since it was loaned out to all of my cousins who passed this book around and never returned it to me. Probably got confiscated. I did re-purchase it again since there isn’t a digital version of it (will there ever be one?) I’m glad you reviewed this. Excellent review. You brought back memories. I remember being saddened at the break up at the end. I love Judy Blume. I grew up reading her books and the one thing she did right was create realistic characters that dealt with realistic issues and that you could come to care about.

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  2. It’s interesting that when this was published there was no YA category. I wonder where it got shelved? Next to Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret?

    My library in the early 80s had Forever shelved in the Teen Fiction section.

    That was a wonderful review. Thank you for that trip down memory lane. Another stand out book on teenagers and sex in the 70s is Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey – an Australian classic.

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  3. I had that edition as well. My parents never denied us a book, so when Forever came out, I was the only girl in the 7th grade who owned a copy. Because of that copy, I enjoyed a fleeting moment of Jr. High popularity. *g*

    I read Forever in seventh grade, when I was struggling with my own family issues. I envied, really envied with a force I could practically taste, Kath and her perfect family.

    Loved this. Thanks Jessica.

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  4. I have never read “Forever” (although after reading this post I definitely want to!) But, speaking as someone who was a teenager in the 2000s, I agree with you that it is absolutely depressing that these characters have so much confidence and assurance that they can have sex, use birth control, get abortions, and not deal with all these hurdles and judgement that currently exist and are only getting worse. You know you’re doing something wrong as a country when a book about female sex positivity from the seventies is more forward-thinking than the garbage people are spouting in the political arena.

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  5. I’ve never read Forever. *blush*. But the reason this is a banned book because it shows teens having sex and trying to be responsible about it? That confuses me.

    Why when it comes to frank discussions about sex in young adult books, it becomes such an issue? And after 35 years since it’s release, it’s still a banned book?

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  6. Nice review! I read a bunch of Judy Blume novels in jr. high, but not this one. The perfect family comment stood out to me also. I always envied the opposite–characters with major angst and serious troubles. I desperately wanted excitement, perhaps because my home life was quiet and steady.

    The most recent Blume I’ve read is Wifey. I just love the 70s/sexual revolution themes you mention in her work and I’m glad to have grown up with her.

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  7. Thanks for a great review! It’s always interesting to return to a favorite from long ago and see how it’s held up.

    I’ve read some of Judy Blume’s books, but not Forever. The popular choices when I was in seventh grade were Danielle Steel novels and the Earth Children’s series (at the time, the first three were available). We certainly had some fun with the drama and the purple prose, but in hindsight I think we’d have been better off reading Forever.

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  8. Are you sure about their being no YA category in the seventies? I was 15 in 1975, and I seem to remember that books like The Pigman and That Was Then, This Is Now were all shelved together in their own section in the bookstore. (In my case, that would have been the Pickwick Books in South Coast Plaza.)

    I never read Forever, but I did read a fairly positive book about contemporary teens having sex and nobody dying that was one of my favorites back then: A Long Way Home from Troy. Anybody else read that one? The heroine was an upper-middle-class senior (with a princess phone and a Peter Max bedspread) who got involved with a boy from the other side of the tracks.

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  9. Trying to remember what it was like when Forever came out. IIRC, my library (NYC) only had racks of YA paperbacks in the children’s section, but there was a specific YA collection at the Donnell branch. By 1980, my library (West Coast) had a separate section of YA hardcovers, still in the children’s room.

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  10. @Vassiliki:

    Another stand out book on teenagers and sex in the 70s is Puberty Blues by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey – an Australian classic.

    I will have to look out for that one. I am hoping to find some sex positive books to share with my kids when they are ready.

    @Keishon:

    I remember being saddened at the break up at the end.

    I know. Michael yelling that he screwed everything in sight was a heartbreaker, because he was such a decent person, and that was so out of character. When I read this at age 12, I was angry at Katherine for moving on. I HATED Theo. But as an adult, I see it as a natural course of events.

    @LBGregg:

    My parents never denied us a book

    My mom was the same, and so am I. I buy them pretty much any book they want. I want to encourage reading as much as possible, so if they are interested in a new title, then we go for it.

    @Emily: @Emily:

    You know you’re doing something wrong as a country when a book about female sex positivity from the seventies is more forward-thinking than the garbage people are spouting in the political arena.

    I could not agree more.

    @KT Grant:

    But the reason this is a banned book because it shows teens having sex and trying to be responsible about it? That confuses me.

    Well, it’s irrational, because this is the way to help meet goals everyone shares, like reducing teen pregnancy and transmission of STD. But it doesn’t confuse me. In fact, it makes perfect sense given political and cultural changes in the US since the 80s.

    @Jill Sorenson:

    I always envied the opposite–characters with major angst and serious troubles. I desperately wanted excitement, perhaps because my home life was quiet and steady.

    That’s funny! I never read Wifey, but I remember other girls reading it and saying it was a more adult version of Forever, whatever that means. I loved Blume’s popular YA books, like Are You There God, Deenie, Blubber, Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself. We had our older son read Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, because of how it handles emerging male sexuality and peer pressure. He liked it.

    @Meri: I read a LOT of Danielle Steel in those days. I can;t even remember what books, not though. They did not stay with me.

    @etv13:

    Are you sure about their being no YA category in the seventies? I was 15 in 1975, and I seem to remember that books like The Pigman and That Was Then, This Is Now were all shelved together in their own section in the bookstore. (In my case, that would have been the Pickwick Books in South Coast Plaza.)

    No. Judy Blume says, in the article I quoted, that it didn’t exit. And the Wikipedia entry on Young Adult Fiction, while vague, also suggests the period when Forever was published was a transitional one:

    As publishers began to focus on the emerging adolescent market, booksellers and libraries, in turn, began creating YA sections distinct from either children’s literature or novels written for adults. The 1970s to the mid-1980s have been described as the golden age of young-adult fiction—when challenging novels began speaking directly to the interests of the identified adolescent market

    .

    But then it would make sense that some of us (@willaful) can recall the Ya section in a library or bookstore and some of us can’t.

    And thanks for the rec!

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  11. Late to the party, as always.

    I read this when I was a young teen. I thought it was part of Sweet Dreams series as it was packaged similarly to a Sweet Dreams book, so the story came as a surprise. :D For what it’s worth, it was shelved in Young Adult Fiction. This was during the late 1980s.

    It was because of this book that I read Blume’s other books. Deenie , Then Again, Maybe I Won’t and Tiger Eyes were the ones that left deep impressions and not all good. Particularly TAMIW which I found it creepy because in the end, it suggested he would continue to be a peeping tom, I think. I may be wrong as it’s been years since I read this one. Heh.

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  12. @Emily: “You know you’re doing something wrong as a country when a book about female sex positivity from the seventies is more forward-thinking than the garbage people are spouting in the political arena. ”

    I often feel that way when reading Harlequins from the 80s.

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  13. Pingback: Death, the Body, Sex, Life | Read React Review

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