Home » Book Review » High Note, Low Note

High Note, Low Note



by Anne Emery

Published 1962

So initially I wasn’t going to review this book.  First off, it’s out of print, and so if you read the review and wanted to read the book, it would probably be difficult to find.  Secondly, it was just a pretty average  book for me.  Not a lot of feelings.  Thirdly, I read this book in AUGUST and it is now October, so that gives you an idea of how far behind I am on the book blog!

But I decided to go ahead and give it a few minutes (and paragraphs) because I really enjoyed how Emery represented family.  I know that a lot of people complain about the 1950’s and how horrible it was for everyone who wasn’t a white male (which is a whole other argument that I could rant about but…), but I think that a return to a lot of the family values from the 50’s would not be amiss.

This particular story is about Jean.  The tale follows her through her senior year in high school.  She’s going steady with Jeff, and develops a new friendship with a girl named Kim.  Throughout the book, Jean learns a lot about herself and what she wants to do with her life.  While she likes Jeff, she isn’t interested in a long-term, serious relationship with him (like he is with her).  While Kim is friendly and an exciting companion, Jean realizes that reliability, kindness, and honesty are important virtues as well.  Overall, I wasn’t terribly excited in Jean’s life.  Kim drove me crazy, and Jean’s inability to tell Jeff how she really felt was also annoying to me.

However, I loved Jean’s parents.  Throughout the story, they always did their best to support their children in their various activities and hobbies, but they showed wisdom and discernment in the rules they laid down and expected to be followed.  While Jean’s mother was a poor, oppressed housewife with no chance for self-expression, she was sweet and cheerful, busy serving her family and her neighborhood.

At one point in the story, Jean’s friends are all in a play together, and have a cast party after the final performance.  Jean has been given a curfew by her parents, but she is having so much fun with her friends that she wants to stay out later.  In the repressed 1950’s, an 18-year-old living under her parents’ roof was actually supposed to obey the rules, so instead of just staying out, Jean stops home to persuade her parents to let her stay out later.

“Oh Mother, this is the most wonderful evening!  We’ve been singing all the operettas over again, and we just got hamburgers at Andy’s.  The gang is going on now to Dave’s house, and then we’re all winding up at Tony’s house for breakfast.”

Her mother looked at her father.  Mr. Burnaby said, “No, you’re not, Jean.  it’s been a good party, and now it’s over.”

…  [Jean’s] heart began to beat with a frantic tripping sensation, and she was in a desperate hurry to finish this discussion and get away from uncertainty.  “All the kids are waiting outside.  Dad, this time I’m staying with them …  this is the party I want to stay out for, and they’re all expecting me.”

“You’re not going on,” said her father.  “It’s after two o’clock, and for you the party is over.  We’re glad you had a good time, but we can’t see any reason to prolong things forever.  You know the rule.”

“Dad, I’ve got to go with them,” Jean protested.  To her horror, her eyes were filling with tears and her voice was shaking.

Her father shook his head.

“You’ve got to stay home,” he said positively.  “Now, do you want to go out and tell them good night, or shall I?”

Thank you, Mr. Burnaby.  Thank you for being a parent.  Thank you for being the dad.  Thank you for not making your wife be the bad guy and have to throw down the discipline.  She’s there, she’s supportive, she’s in agreement, but Mr. Burnaby lays down the law, and Jean does what he says, although quite unwillingly.

After everyone leaves, Jean throws one last accusation at her parents.

“You’ve ruined my whole senior year,” she stormed at her father.  “This was the best party I’ve ever been to in my whole high-school career, and you’ve spoiled it all.”

Her mother started to speak, but Jean rushed past her and up the stairs to the seclusion of her own room.  She was the only girl in the whole school who had parents like hers, taking all the joy out of life, interfering with her plans, keeping her away from her friends.  She wondered hopelessly why her parents couldn’t be like [Kim’s parents], who were so easy to live with.  They understood what Kim needed – freedom and independence, and being allowed to grow up.  She cried herself to sleep.

But the best part comes the next morning.  Jean wakes up still feeling angry, and heads down to breakfast.

Wrapped in a chilly hauteur and determined to speak to no one, she descended the stairs on Sunday morning, hoping her father would realize someday what he had done to her.

A piece of brown paper covered the floor at the foot of the stairs by the front door.  She looked down at a great black X, as it crackled under her foot, and read the inscription in heavy crayon:  “X marks the spot where the world came to an end last night.”

Involuntarily, her lips twitched, and then she began to laugh.  Trust Dad to figure out something like this!  She told herself she was still angry, but as she looked at the X, she could feel her anger fading.

I love it.  In the end, instead of just being a heavy-handed father, he helps Jean to see how ridiculously out of proportion she was about the whole party.  In high school, it can seem like your entire life hinges on one specific event.  Part of growing up is realizing that there is a time and a place for everything, and balance is important.

Throughout the book, Jean gets to know Kim better, and begins to realize that the freedom and lack of supervision that Kim’s parents give her are not really a boon.  Kim is still very young and in need of guidance and help, but no one is really looking out for her.  While Jean is sometimes frustrated by her parents’ rules, she comes to realize that their rules are a way of strengthening her, not holding her back.

So anyway, it was a fine book, although not a favorite.  But I always appreciate a story where kids learn to see that their parents are real people who really have their kids’ best interests at heart.  I think that far too often we don’t realize that.  We’re young and think that we’re super clever and far more brilliant that our parents could ever be; we think that the problems we face are nothing like what they’ve ever seen; we think that we are different, unique, special – but we’re not.  We’re stupid, selfish, and narrow.  The sooner that a 20-something can realize, accept, and embrace that fact, the sooner he can start growing into a person worth knowing.

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