Walter Hutchens's Reviews > Riding in Cars with Boys: Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Makes Good

Riding in Cars with Boys by Beverly Donofrio
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's review
Nov 02, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: memoir
Read in October, 2011

Read this for a class on memoir writing (taught by the wonderful Theo Nestor, author of How to Sleep Alone in a King Size Bed, at the Univ. of Washington in Seattle). Not surprising this book was made into a movie, she noted; it's very cinematic. I agree; if you are interested in writing, it's worth checking out this book for craft/technique.

Haven't seen the movie yet, but I agree with other reviewers here that many of the narrator's choices were bad and that explicit introspection is not a preoccupation or strong suit of this book. But this book does work well as a slice of life about a young woman in a small, economically depressed, non-cerebral NE town in the 1960s and how she finally both transcended that environment and came to appreciate some of what was good about it.

The author was smart and wanted to escape. She felt suffocated by patriarchy (though that word never appears in the book) and the values of the "hoods" around her. But she was also "boy crazy" by junior high school, hungry for attention and maybe adventure and apparently unable to avoid subconsciously repeating some patterns from the lives of her parents (and grandparents). Getting pregnant and married before high school graduation stopped her, seemed to seal her fate to repeat her mother's life. Things got even worse when her "hood" husband turned out to be a heroin addict.

She resented her lot, resented her parents' moralizing, resented the limited world she felt stuck in. At times she resented her son for anchoring her there.

Like others I didn't like that she was sometimes reckless or negligent towards her child (dropping acid at a picnic with him playing around her, unwatched by anyone sober) and I agree she seems insufficiently contrite about some of her glaring mistakes, doesn't "own" them explicitly. I also wasn't impressed that she sought solace in drugs and promiscuity. It was the 60s, so she was partly responding to a large cultural influence, plus there was a more particular influence from the non-WASPY culture of the town she was in, but she doesn't reflect on how bad her strategies were for getting what she really wanted, doesn't dwell on her own agency in her behavior.

However, some reviewers here say the narrator doesn't progress or develop as a character/human being; that's wrong. They must mean they didn't like how she changed, didn't think she changed enough or weren't paying attention.

She makes explicit that she realizes she blamed her son for holding her back when actually, she comes to realize, he may have kept her from going further off the deep end. She clearly loves her son. Much of the opening and ending is about her crying out loud (for crying out loud!) about being separated from him, after expecting to feel euphoric about her freedom once she's at last able to drive him off to college, finally relieved of having to take daily care of him. So her view about her son changes.

She raised him to be a feminist, which is also an important generational change (her father and mother were initially against her going to college and doted more on her brother, a favorite because of his gender, because of his "golden penis").

Her son clearly loves her, is aware he's had an unconventional upbringing but validates it as positive---not something she could have done at his age about her own upbringing. So there's lots of change in the book, though it is subtly conveyed (there is even SOME self indictment; she notes on the first page that she took "the path of most resistance," a nice turn of phrase).

A men/cars/freedom motif adds literary resonance to the book. The book starts and ends with her driving her son to college. In junior high school she wants boys cruising in cars to pay attention to her. She had her first groping, proto-sexual experience in a car with a boy at 14, then suffers a damaged reputation in school after the boy gossiped about her as "easy." Her father drove her to the train station as a gesture of love. And her broken down VW bug, which she names "Cupcake," is her means of liberation---she drives it to community college, later to Wesleyan and then off to NY, often with her son along for the ride but also, significantly, sometimes alone. Also, Cupcake gets stolen twice by some boy trying to escape from a juvenile detention facility to go see his girlfriend, who had been impregnated too young, too. This motif about men, cars, love and yearning for freedom (with the risk of mistakes looming) is I think a really nice touch. It "works."

Personally I found her lack of chagrin about being on public assistance for years off-putting, but she DID take initiative and worked her way through a community college then a liberal arts school on scholarship, then struck out for New York and carved out a modest life for herself there.

By the end she comes to appreciate her parents' love, not just resent their attempts to control her. She's realized her son was the best thing that ever happened to her in many ways, and she knows she's made lots of mistakes.

So she does change, and she confesses many sins, and writes beautifully about it all.
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