It makes good sense that a first-time novelist would choose to write a coming-of-age story. The genre provides familiar, close-at-hand territory for a young writer. Also, it can restrict the scope of the narrative to a fairly narrow range of experience. There are some sprawling coming-of-age novels (David Copperfield being an obvious example), but many have a more modest scale.
In Lisa Locascio’s debut novel, Open Me, she wisely focuses the story on the interactions of three principal characters over the span of several weeks. That’s how long her protagonist, a recent American high school graduate named Roxana Olesen, remains in Denmark. She’s gone there as part of an overseas study program offered by a company called International Abroad Experiences. Roxana is certainly avid for experience abroad, including romantic and sexual, and she finds it in no time at all. She arrives at the airport in Copenhagen in the book’s first paragraph, and she meets the novel’s secondary character, Søren, a romantic interest and eventual adversary, at the very moment that the reader flips to the second page.
Roxana could have had (and should have had) Paris. That is where she’d planned to travel, along with Sylvie, her BFF. An apparent administrative mix-up resulted in her flying instead to Denmark, by herself. Roxana deceives her stateside parents (who are on the verge of divorce), leading them to believe she is en route to France. Soon after arriving in Copenhagen, she ditches her study plans to cohabitate with Søren, a grad student attempting to finish a thesis on African-American literature. (Søren is insistently Caucasian: “so pale it was hard to see him in the bright light.”)
You get an uneasy feeling about Søren in Chapter 2, when he takes Roxana out of the sunlit Scandinavian summer evening and into a dark, mostly-empty bar. At 28, Søren is no kid. And although Roxana lost her virginity back in the states, that rite of passage was a hasty, unsatisfying experience: she wants more. Saying goodnight to Søren on that first beery evening in Copenhagen, she lunges to kiss him, but her mouth meets his neck, not his lips. A love affair nonetheless blooms, and she agrees to go away with him to his uncle’s apartment in a small town called Farsø, where he plans to work on his thesis.
Open Me is full of elaborate erotic passages — intense, graphic yet poetically rendered, and often accompanied by oddly apt images of purple smoke:
[Søren] lapped at me and I stared at the white ceiling, beginning to understand. Pleasure could be mine, could go from being untouchable as an ancient ship to something real that happened between my legs, passing from the mouth of a person I barely knew into my body.
Soon, however, Roxana finds herself a quasi-prisoner. While Søren is off working on his thesis, she spends her days in the Farsø apartment alone — eating, napping, masturbating. In the evenings, the pair smoke super-potent hashish and watch TV. His feelings toward her sour, and his bedroom ardor fades fast. When his racist and anti-immigrant sentiments surface, Roxana becomes frustrated on a different level. She looks for ways to escape her captivity and finds herself drawn to a Bosnian refugee — a Muslim man named Zlatan but derisively nicknamed Geden, which is Danish for goat.
Writing in the first-person from Roxana’s perspective, Locascio mostly creates a believable, consistent protagonist. I grew to admire her stubborn insistence on riding every dangerous carnal wave, even as I fretted over her incaution. Her narrative voice frequently has a tone that matches her spoken dialogue — also believable for someone in her late teens with little worldly experience: “Now my body was live. It could take me anywhere I wanted to go, and I wanted to go everywhere.” But sometimes Locascio’s linguistic riffs seem too sophisticated for the character. Roxana could be narrating the story from a later, more mature vantage point, but when such words as “incipient,” “ceding” and “interstices” pop into the narrative, the effect can be jarring.
And there are a few just plain awkward sentences in the book, even in the erotic sequences. Take this one, from the description of a Roxana-Søren encounter:
He lifted my chin to access the skin under my jaw and with his tongue painted stripes from the tip of my chin to the top of my shirt.
Maybe that passage is intended to be awkward, portraying Søren as a rather clunky lover. Later, as Roxana comes to know Zlatan, she experiences an odd kind of grace, and Locascio’s prose, catching the mood, becomes more graceful too:
I walked into the bathroom to see myself in the mirror. New acne had sprouted in the crevice below my lower lip. I wore neither bra nor underpants, and I had not brushed my teeth or washed my face in over twenty-four hours. But I saw fresh beauty, newly hatched.
I grew to like Locascio’s novel better the further I read into it. Her talent is undeniable. I look forward to seeing what direction she’ll take in books yet unwritten.