I recently had a thought while reading Marjory Hall’s A Picnic for Judy, a YA book from 1955. The premise was promising: a young woman is forced to move with her family to a rambling old inn on a Maine island. Score! I thought. It seemed like it would combine my favorite fifties YA themes: coming of age, pine trees, and redecorating, with setting to rights into the bargain. Yes, surely this would be the sort of book that Betty Cavanna could whip up with her eyes closed—that I find so comforting and fun.
It’s true, I’d had mixed results with Howell before. Her books have been known to involve inexplicable decision-making, mysterious romantic motivations, and leaden dialogue. But with this setup, how could she go wrong? At the very least, there’d be a picnic scene.
But here’s the rub: the titular Judy is the single most unappealing protagonist I’ve ever encountered. She’s sullen, self-absorbed, incurious, uninteresting—and as if that weren’t enough, she spends the bulk of the book scheming to steal the boyfriend of her poor and hardworking colleague, until (spoiler alert) the local rich guy inexplicably falls in love with Judy. (People are always falling in love with her.)
I threw it down in disgust. After I had devoured it, I mean. Besides the usual burning questions motivating me—Would there be a picnic? Would Judy become less detestable?—I was sort of fascinated by the author’s situation. How had she spent so much time with such a horrible character? It was a Power Broker–esque feat.
I should amend my statement: Judy is the most unappealing protagonist I’ve ever encountered in a “fun” read. The distinction is important, because it goes without saying that capital-L Literature is filled with fascinating antiheroes, many of them sensationally disagreeable: Proust’s neurotics, Fitzgerald’s amoral voluptuaries, Brontë’s prickly heroines. I mean, Emma Bovary, for God’s sakes. Raskolnikov! In such company, reader identification is not the point; at least, it’s not a necessity.
But without complexity, we require identification. If the bore is also a jerk, it becomes hard to justify his presence in our lives as readers. The characters we live with must nourish or challenge as much as the people we know, no? After all, there are some days when we probably spend more time with the former than the latter.
So I’m pleased to say I’ll spend no further time with Judy. Oh, and if you must know: yes, there is a picnic in the book—several, in fact—but it’s hard to enjoy when you’re in such bad company.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.