Apron Bramhall is a thirteen-year-old seventh grader for whom life has been extremely difficult lately. Her mother died just six months ago from cancer and Margie, the Brazilian nurses’ aid who cared for her mother, has taken up permanent residence in Apron’s home. Her father, a Latin professor, wants Apron to get along with Margie, but Apron can only bear to call her “M.” Her father doesn’t seem to notice that M. was apparently born with a perpetually mean expression on her face and despises Apron. She is also a slob, even though Apron’s father is compulsively neat, and seems determined to kill The Boss, Apron’s guinea pig.
Apron attends a local production of Jesus Christ Superstar with her best friend, Rennie, and Rennie’s family. She is instantly enamored with the actor portraying Jesus — he seems as close to authentic as Apron can imagine. And Apron is quite surprised when she realizes that he is the nephew of her neighbor. He and his partner, Chad, are the owners of a local floral shop, Scent Appeal, and before long Apron befriends them both, helping out in the shop when they discover that she has a true flair for creating floral arrangements.
But Apron’s life becomes even more complicated when her father’s relationship with M. takes a serious turn. She also realizes that Chad is extremely ill. Although no one explains his condition to her, she assumes that, like her mother, he has cancer. Sadly, it is 1985 and an AIDS diagnosis is tantamount to the beginning of the end. It also brings stigma, prejudice, and hate crimes to Portland, Maine, unpleasant things that Apron has never seen first-hand before.
The summer separating seventh and eighth grades proves to be life-changing for Apron and the point in her life when she learns what love really means to her.
Reading the work of a first-time author is a gamble, especially if the book has gotten a lot of rave reviews. There is always a chance that it won’t live up to the hype and will be a disappointment. That is not the case with Girl Unmoored. The glowing reviews new novelist Jennifer Gooch Hummer has received are well-deserved and I am anxious to read more from her.
Apron Bramhall is one of those characters who spring to life in readers’ minds and invade their hearts from the outset, taking up residence there in the first few pages and lingering long after the last page has been read, the book shelved. She is completely endearing because of her sheer humanness. Her adolescence is painful — isn’t everyone’s? — and made more so by the profound loss she has recently suffered. An only child, she demands that her father leave her mother’s closet untouched because it is the only remaining place in the house where she can still detect her mother’s unique scent. She also wears her mother’s hospital identification bracelet on her own wrist. Meanwhile, her father has too-quickly moved into a relationship with the evil M. and while he loves Apron, he seems oblivious to his only child’s needs.
Girl Unmoored is about friendship. Deep, loyal friendship. The kind that supersedes family. The kind that keeps you anchored when everything else is falling apart. The kind that can save you.~ Author Jennifer Gooch Hummer
Apron is convinced that she is ugly, with her flaming red hair and perpetual klutziness. Her best and only real friend, Rennie, seems determined to sidle up to the most popular girl in school, leaving Apron behind, and the boy Apron has a crush on does not notice her. In short, nothing is really going Apron’s way until her path collides — literally — with Mike and Chad’s. Apron has never known a gay person before, and Mike and Chad need help managing both their floral shop and Chad’s rapidly deteriorating medical condition. They forge an unlikely, but touching bond that proves to be life-altering for all of them.
Hummer effortlessly transports readers back to 1985, the year that AIDS invaded the average American’s vernacular — and fears, when only the wealthy elite carried cell phones the size of small suitcases, the Internet did not yet exist, Madonna dominated radio airtime, and colleges still offered Latin courses. Although it wasn’t that long ago, Hummer gently reminds readers that the world was a very different place. The manner in which the AIDS virus is transmitted was not yet understood and President Ronald Reagan’s political stance did nothing to advance either research into a cure or social justice for members of the gay and lesbian community. Scent Appeal is targeted by violent bigots and Apron’s father hesitates to allow her to spend time with Mike and Chad when he learns of Chad’s illness. Apron is forced to grow up quickly.
The friendship that blossoms between Apron, Mike, and Chad is charming, believable, and thoroughly heart-rending. Apron’s troubled relationship with her new would-be stepmother also strikes an authentic chord because of Hummer’s deft and often subtle handling of Apron’s complex emotions vis a vis the malevolent M.’s presence in her home and her hapless father’s life. Hummer keeps the action moving and the story never becomes maudlin or saccharine-sweet because it is frequently hilarious, in addition to deeply touching. Apron’s eccentric Grandma Bramhall could be the star of a novel devoted to her own quirky adventures, but there are plenty of other supporting characters to keep Girl Unmoored moving forward to its satisfying, if not entirely surprising, conclusion.
Apron learns what it means to be saved and to save someone else through friendship. She also comes to understand that friendships don’t have to endure for long periods of time in order to be profoundly influential to our development, as well as memorable. Most of all, she learns, because of all that she experiences during that milestone summer, what love is really all about. Girl Unmoored is a perfectly balanced novel: a combination of light-hearted fun, bordering on slapstick at times, within a poignant and deeply relatable coming-of-age story. It is a thoroughly impressive debut work.