Maude’s photography teacher has given the class an assignment on “family,” leaving Maude confused and flustered. Maude was adopted as a baby, and though the adoption was “semi-open,” she’ll never be able to meet her biological mother, who died giving birth to her. At an age (17) when she’s trying to figure out exactly who she is and who she wants to become, Maude isn’t sure what family really means for her.
But the project gives her an idea: She’ll go visit her best friend, Treena, at Florida State University, the same school her birth mother, Claire, attended. Maude is looking forward to catching up with Treena and learning more about Claire. But neither goes as she expected — Treena has already started to change during her short time at college, and the things that Maude learns about Claire paint a very different picture from the one she had imagined.
Lauren Gibaldi’s “Autofocus” deals with an important and sensitive issue that doesn’t always get talked about enough: the issue of adoption. Maude loves her adoptive parents dearly and considers them her real parents, but she’s also full of curiosity about where and who she came from. Her parents are wise enough to allow her the freedom to look, while at the same time cautioning her not to get her hopes too high. Her search is filled with frustration and sadness, but she also finds hope and satisfaction in unexpected places. (Sometimes she pushes a little too hard with recalcitrant leads, and there’s room for discussion of the ethics of pursuing people to their workplace or home and trying to make them talk when they don’t want to talk.)
Ultimately, Maude understands that Claire’s decision to give birth to her and give her up was an act of love and courage. Especially when an old friend of Claire’s tells her, “She thought about . . . you know . . .” Maude knows exactly what she means, and realizes, “If she had gone through with you know, I wouldn’t be here.” It’s a brief but significant abortion reference that portrays adoption as an infinitely better alternative.
As for the other major plotline — Maude’s introduction to Treena’s life at college — it’s both more conventional, and more disturbing. Maude quickly discovers that her formerly shy and quiet friend has plunged headfirst into the party scene. Treena drinks too much, takes too many risks, and keeps shutting Maude out of her dorm room for extended makeout sessions with her new boyfriend, Trey. (It’s suggested but not spelled out that they go further than just making out.)
Not knowing what else to do, Maude tries to follow along, but she and Treena start coming too close to disaster. Maude has a steadying influence, though, in another college student, Bennett, whom she met during her first party at Treena’s dorm. Nervous after having been hit on by another guy, Maude blurts out that she doesn’t want Bennett to try anything with her. He’s somewhat amused, but promises not to, and stands by his promise, even when Maude gets shut out by Treena and has to spend the night in Bennett’s room. (Though they do get romantically involved eventually, it doesn’t go further than kissing.) Bennett is a good guy who enjoys showing Maude around and helping with her family research, drinks a little but not too much, and is there to rescue her and Treena when they get in over their heads. He’s also there to remind Maude that getting drunk and overly flirtatious does not reflect the person that she really is, or really wants to be.
The amount of drinking, profanity, and sexual references may make some parents feel uncomfortable with “Autofocus.” On the other hand, the kids’ actions frequently have consequences. Not heavy consequences — Maude is a little too blithely inclined at the end to assume that everyone and everything will be okay, even after some of the trouble they’ve gotten into — but consequences nonetheless. And there are positive messages about not seeing other people as things, and not using them to make oneself feel better.
Maude has to learn that she’s not destined to follow the path of her birth mother, or her adoptive parents, or even Treena — that she needs to figure out who she wants to be and how she wants to get there. Christians will note that it’s not exactly the way that we would teach a young person to find his or her identity — that we would instead make sure he or she learns to be grounded in God’s love. However, “Autofocus” probably has some of the strongest messages on the subject that one is likely to find outside of the Christian mindset. If “be who you want to be” goes a little too easily with the flow of mainstream culture, at least it’s better than “lose yourself in hedonism.”
Image copyright HarperTeen. Review copy obtained from Barnes & Noble.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.