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"The Secret Fruit of Peter Paddington" by Brian Francis; HarperPerennial ($12.95)
"I was so angry at my evil nipples. Who did they think they were, anyway?" Can a novel with lines like that in it really be any good?
Amazingly, it can.
Canadian author Brian Francis' "The Secret Fruit of Peter Paddington" - published in hardcover last year as "Fruit" - is a droll and offbeat tale about adolescent secrets, family tensions and, yes, troublesome nipples.
Its narrator, pudgy 13-year-old Peter Paddington, has serious issues with his entire body. But it's his nipples - "round and puffy and not the two pink raisins they used to be" - that give him the greatest worry.
"I was scared about the future," he admits. "Eighth grade had just started. How was I ever going to make it through the year with deformed nipples?" One remedy he tries is taping them flat, so no one will notice them. Another is to avoid, as best he can, the bullies at school who will surely give him an even harder time than usual if they notice how strange his nipples have become.
Neither approach is completely successful. And when his nipples start talking to him (their first words: "Maybe if you were normal, we'd be normal, too"), it begins to look as though he's fighting a losing battle.
It doesn't take the reader long to realize what Peter is up against. He's a gay teen in the making, just becoming aware of his desires and almost completely in the dark about sex (any kind of sex). In comically poignant and quirkily resourceful fashion, Peter keeps trying to make sense of feelings and perceptions for which he lacks any examples or vocabulary. Indeed, the word "gay" doesn't even appear in the book.
What we get instead are Peter's "bedtime movies" (waking dreams in which the homoerotic desires at play stop well short of any anatomical detail); his "mental telepathy messages" in which real communication goes on that couldn't possibly be voiced out loud; and his chatty nipples, insistent that they're "the only ones telling the truth."
Peter's attempt to make sense of himself results in some painful yet entertaining reading. And the entertainment doesn't come from Peter alone. Francis has surrounded him with a hilarious and thoroughly credible family: sardonic shift worker dad who does his best to maintain some emotional equilibrium in the house, weight-conscious mom and sisters who have self-esteem problems as complex as Peter's, and Uncle Ed - "the fattest person in my family" - who's an embarrassment to them all.
Then there's Peter's friend, Daniela Bertoli, who "says the f-word more than anyone else I know. I think someone played a trick on her once and told her that the f-word was part of normal English language." Gutter-mouthed though she is, she's as innocent in many ways as Peter himself.
Finally there are Peter's newspaper-route customers in the small industrial city where he lives, including handsome Mr. Hanlan, who keeps making appearances in Peter's "bedtime movies." Between Peter's family, his classmates and teachers, his customers and Daniela's family, Francis gives us a surprisingly panoramic view of Peter's hometown, even as he keeps us closely focused on Peter's urgent inner drama.
"My biggest problem," Peter laments, "is that I don't know how to make boy friends. I never know what to say around other boys and I'm afraid that if I do say something, I'll sound stupid." Observing his peers, he can't help but note, "It's like being a boy is the easiest thing in the world for them."
With good humor and grace, Francis brings Peter's world and his dilemmas beguilingly alive.
One quibble: Francis' afterword in this paperback edition reveals that the American version of his novel has been de-Canadianized. Instead of singing "O Canada!" Peter recites the Pledge of Allegiance, and the names of Canadian candy bars, sports teams and junk-food outlets have been replaced with their U.S. counterparts.
Francis seems to accept this with good humor. But surely American readers ought to be able to handle a bit of Canadian local color in their fiction. Please, no de-Canadianizing in Francis' next book!
(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.