Look at Me 

Susannah Felts’ debut explores friendship, voyeurism and the conscience of a budding artist

One of the girls is a promising photographer who finds that she does her best work when she turns her camera, sometimes ruthlessly, on her friend.

Is there any creature hungrier for power than a teenage girl? It’s no coincidence that just as girls approach an adult world where the deck is stacked against them, they start training themselves for fierce interpersonal warfare, mostly by battling each other. Everybody loves a catfight, so girls’ rivalries get a lot of attention in young adult fiction, but the really interesting power struggles happen within girls’ friendships—especially those intimate, closer-than-blood friendships that seem to be unique to female adolescence. This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record, the debut novel by Scene contributor Susannah Felts, centers on a classic “best girlfriend” pair, but adds a twist: One of the girls is a promising photographer who finds that she does her best work when she turns her camera, sometimes ruthlessly, on her friend.

The novel’s narrator, Vaughn “Rhymes-with-Yawn” Vance, is 16 in the summer of 1989, alone and lonely after ditching both her boyfriend and her longtime trio of girlfriends. Or did they dump her? In the usual way of teenagers, Vaughn is a little confused. She thinks she wants to spend her summer alone, figuring out who she is, but within days she has adopted, or been adopted by, Sophie Birch, a new kid in the neighborhood, a year her junior. It’s a case of opposites attracting. Vaughn is the bright, well-behaved, awkward daughter of doting parents. Sophie is pretty in that skinny, cool girl way that never seems to go out of style. She’s mouthy and sly, but also needy, and she’s stuck with a screwed-up embarrassment of a mother.

From the start, Vaughn feels overwhelmed by Sophie’s boldness. “In a little over an hour she’d convinced me I had something to prove,” says Vaughn during their initial encounter. Without being aware of her own motives, Vaughn tries to reverse the power dynamic by convincing her parents to take Sophie in when her mother leaves town. This puts Sophie in the position of being continually reminded of all the things Vaughn has that she does not, but it also heightens Vaughn’s envy of Sophie’s beauty and boyfriends, not to mention her resentment of the way her parents warm to their unofficial foster child. The girls are inseparable, but there’s always a certain tension lurking between them.

For Vaughn, that tension is expressed through her budding interest in photography. “Take one of me,” attention-starved Sophie demands on seeing Vaughn’s camera for the first time. Vaughn obliges “to make her happy,” but is soon obsessed with Sophie as a subject. Sophie poses for endless shots, but Vaughn also finds herself trying to catch her unaware, sneaking pictures during a park outing and even snapping Sophie as she sleeps: “Her lips pouted out like a baby’s. She’d taken off her shorts at some point and was wearing only her tank top and underwear. I thought maybe the click of the shutter would wake her. But she slept on, drifting through some place where I could never follow.”

There’s never an overt sexual encounter between Vaughn and Sophie, but there is an erotic charge to their relationship that eventually works its way to the surface, as it so often does, in rivalry over boys. A drunken betrayal puts an end to the summer sisterhood, and the final third of the novel follows Vaughn as she tries to understand where the friendship went wrong. When, without Sophie’s knowledge, she successfully enters her photos in a school competition, she’s forced to confront the inevitable artist’s guilt about exploiting real life and relationships. A new friend and fellow photographer, Solveig, preaches the sanctity of artistic vision: “The world is how you see it, nothing more, nothing less. It’s in your head so make it what it is.” Vaughn is not so sure.

Curiously, the novel is actually liveliest during its final segment, when Sophie is mostly offstage. This is due in part to the entrance of Solveig, with whom Vaughn has the kind of intense, searching exchanges you’d expect between bright high school kids who read Camus and Susan Sontag. As Vaughn begins to understand her own behavior in a new light, the reader is allowed to see a passionate, creative, slightly edgy young woman, rather than the observant cipher who fell into obsession with Sophie. By the time Sophie reenters the story, sympathy for Vaughn makes us truly care about their reconciliation.

Nashvillians will be interested to know that virtually all the action in This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record takes place at the familiar landmarks of the Hillsboro-West End neighborhood, with a special starring role for the dragon sculpture at Fannie Mae Dees Park. The girls and their boyfriends make out, fight and get high around the dragon, which in 1989 was damaged and crumbling. Even without Felts’ connection to Nashville, the location seems hard for any writer to resist. The dragon’s combination of magic and decay is almost too perfect a symbol for the promise and pain of being a teenager—especially a teenage girl.

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