In a story about an alcoholic teen and the twin brother who covers for her, who's the protagonist?
"I have people come up to me and, in some cases, they say alcohol is the protagonist," author Kathleen Tresemer says. But, in an interview with WNIJ, she hints that the twins' co-dependent relationship may be the real main character of her novel, Time in a Bottle.
The book is one of four Read With Me selections for February.
Tresemer knows what co-dependency looks like. She used to facilitate an Alateen group, which is part of the Al-Anon family that helps problem drinkers.
"I used to help kids who are either family members of someone who's an alcoholic, or who are friends of someone with substance abuse," Tresemer says.
Tresemer mined that experience for this story about twin high-schoolers Beth and Teddy Frye.
Beth is a shy but highly-talented pianist, while the more outgoing Teddy is an accomplished gymnast. They tell their stories in first person in separate chapters.
Beth, a freshman, opens the book by describing a pool party in which she hangs out with older, cooler girls from Hononegah High in Rockton. Beth is the guest of Mindy, whose parents allow her to drink -- and serve alcohol to her underage friends.
"Wanna try a lemon slush?" Mindy pushes a glass into my hand.
"Uh, sure." Sucking in a big mouthful of the tangy ice, I choke.
"What's in this?"
"Shaved ice, lemonade, vodka," she laughs. "Too strong for you?"
"No, no." I regain my cool. "It's great, really."
Another mouthful, then more. The initial burning gives way to heat. A light, happy feeling. Like floating. Even popular girls look friendlier.
"Okay, good," Mindy says. "Want another one?"
At home the next day, Teddy goes upstairs to remind Beth that she and her mom have a shopping date. After knocking, and being told to go away, he opens the door to find a lamp on the floor and clothes strewn all over.
From under a tangle of satin purple comforter and pink sheets, an arm slithers out. Pushes back the covers. Beth rolls into a sitting position, real slow. Plunks her feet on the floor and moans, "Ooooh . . ."
Holding her head with both hands, she squeezes her eyes shut. In slow motion, she slides down until her butt hits the floor. Her head flops back on the bed. She's still in her clothes.
Teddy confronts Beth about last night's party, demanding to know how much she drank. But he keeps it between them and agrees to lie to their mom that Beth is too tired to go shopping -- not hung over. Later that day, after a stressful piano rehearsal, Beth approaches Mindy for more alcohol. Mindy gives her more vodka and shows her how to hide liquor.
I finger the small, pink plastic bottle with the label that reads moisturizing lotion, five ounces. My heart pounds in my chest.
"No one will even notice," Mindy says, waving her hand in the air as if to dismiss my concern. "What girl doesn't have lotion in her purse?"
I fiddle with the cap, making sure it's on tight and won't leak. "Won't they smell it on my breath or something?"
"Seriously, it's just vodka. Pour it into flavored water or tea and you're good to go. No smell."
Beth's increasing dependence on alcohol is validated the following month when she sneaks a drink before her recital and gives an outstanding performance. Backstage, she meets the president of the New York Conservatory, who congratulates her and invites her to audition at his school.
The only problem, Beth believes, is that success depends on an uninterrupted supply of vodka. As Beth's addiction worsens, it harms her relationship with Teddy, her mother, and her friends. It even causes her to lose interest in the piano.
As Beth gets closer to hitting bottom, we watch her insult her mother, throw tantrums, and increasingly rely on Teddy to pick up the pieces. The author says it wasn't easy to portray the ugliness of addiction while keeping the reader engaged.
"My initial readers were saying 'We want to like Beth more,'" Tresemer says. In response, she decided to highlight Beth's social anxiety, which alcohol eased. "So I had to do some editing to bring out the fact that she was kind of a victim of her own weaknesses," she says.
Beth's story takes a very dark turn late in the novel, but Tresemer says the book is appropriate for teens.
To spur discussion, the author includes questions for readers such as, What is Teddy's reaction to Beth's first hangover? Why does he feel the need to cover for her?
This Spring, Tresemer will speak to a young adult book club at Mystery to Me books in Madison. She also continues to read from, and discuss, her book with adult readers at various libraries.
And what are her own feelings about alcohol? "While I was working with the kids, I didn't drink for a long time: It was kind of the enemy," she says. "But in reality, something else can come into play that might affect anyone's life and lead us down the wrong path."
Tresemer says she has an occasional drink now. "But I do really look at people who have issues in a more empathetic light, and try to see where they need support rather than be judgmental," she says.
Kathleen Tresemer co-founded the In Print Professional Writers Organization, a group that provides resources and education for writers. She lives in Rockton.
Our "Read With Me" series continues Tuesday with Small Town Roads, the latest novel by L.B. Johnson. Listen during Morning Edition, after Perspectives, at 6:52 and 8:52. Then come back here for a video excerpt and other information.
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