Why I read it: I picked up a review copy at NetGalley.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads): Anna remembers a time before boys, when she was little and everything made sense. When she and her mom were a family, just the two of them against the world. But now her mom is gone most of the time, chasing the next marriage, bringing home the next stepfather. Anna is left on her own—until she discovers that she can make boys her family. From Desmond to Joey, Todd to Sam, Anna learns that if you give boys what they want, you can get what you need. But the price is high—the other kids make fun of her; the girls call her a slut. Anna's new friend, Toy, seems to have found a way around the loneliness, but Toy has her own secrets that even Anna can't know.
Then comes Sam. When Anna actually meets a boy who is more than just useful, whose family eats dinner together, laughs, and tells stories, the truth about love becomes clear. And she finally learns how it feels to have something to lose—and something to offer. Real, shocking, uplifting, and stunningly lyrical, Uses for Boys is a story of breaking down and growing up.
Warning: There is a sexual assault in the story – it isn’t violent but if you have triggers, beware.
What worked for me (and what didn’t): I would categorise this as YA rather than romance, although there is a romantic thread near the end and there is a hopeful ending, the book is more about Anna’s journey, so don’t expect the traditional romance arc. (For example, the “hero”, Sam, doesn’t show up until around the 2/3 mark of the book.) The story is told from Anna’s first person POV and I wasn’t quite sure how reliable she was as narrator – at least in relation to her relationship with her mother. Perhaps it is that I don’t want to belief that her mother could be that self-absorbed and selfish. Perhaps it is that there is some inconsistency with how Anna’s mother acts toward the end of the book and what Anna tells the reader about her at the start.
By the time Anna is 13, she is so very lonely, that when a boy on the bus pays attention to her and gropes her breast (in front of his friends, the douchebag) she not only passively accepts it, she spins straw into gold and tells herself a story about him, of how it will be for them. There is no them of course and Anna loses her only school friend and her reputation as a result, but she does discover that boys can make her feel good, even if only for a while. And that’s better than nothing.
Anna isn’t actually as “slutty” as I expected she would be from what I had heard about the book before reading. There were a couple of one-off incidents in the book, must mostly Anna is in a relationship with her sexual partners and there weren’t that many of them. While I felt Anna was far too young and vulnerable to be having sex, I didn’t actually feel that Joey or Josh or Sam really took advantage of her. I think Joey was lonely too and he seemed to give Anna a lot of genuine affection and attention (perhaps this is Anna being an unreliable narrator but that’s what was on the page). Josh and Anna’s relationship took a fairly standard teenage course, except that for a time they share an apartment. Sam wants far more from Anna than just to get his rocks off but he’s a boy too and not a saint so, while it takes a bit longer, their relationship is sexual as well. But none of these boys were merely “users”. My mental picture of the boys Anna has sex with being all like the boy on the bus or like Todd wasn’t accurate.
As much as I was gutted for Anna at the beginning of the story; how lonely she was - how no-one was taking care of this child! - but I found myself wanting her to fight back, to fight for herself more by the time she hit 16 and was supporting herself physically. I wanted her to start supporting herself emotionally too. There is a part of the book where Anna is complaining about Josh (her newly-ex-boyfriend) not fighting for anything and it was beautiful irony because Anna doesn’t either really.
I wasn’t convinced that by the end of the book Anna was in charge of her own destiny, that she was making choices to please herself from a place of strength. I still felt she was seeking approval from Sam and his family and that was the major driver in her actions.
What else? I’m not a fan of ambiguity in general. There are some writers who can create a complete word picture in a few short sentences, who can draw a detailed character picture with spare strokes of the pen. Anna (and many other characters in the book) felt so spare as to have parts of themselves missing. There was not enough for me to fill in the gaps and intuit what was not there and I was left somewhat frustrated at the things I felt I was supposed to know but didn’t.
Here is what I said at the end of my audiobook review for AudioGals “I wanted more detail and a more hopeful ending – in the end the spare style frustrated me more than charmed. But, don’t be fooled into thinking this is a story about a slutty girl who deserves what’s happening to her and who merely makes bad choice after bad choice. It’s a story about a lonely fragile girl who is so emotionally abandoned, she imprints (over and again) on the first person who shows her some affection – and about boys who should be taught to respect women and girls better than they do.”