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Turning "Nothing" into Something

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I've got a friend named Robin who writes books, and she's funny. But now she's downright serious -- well, to a point, I guess. And I'm pleasantly surprised.

Not that I didn't think she had the ability. I guess it's hard for any author be ticklish when the topic is mental illness -- especially when the subject involves kids. Throw bulimia into the mix, and the book may sound a little too depressing for a 15-year-old who only goes to the library so he can neck with his girlfriend behind the stacks.

The challenge is to elevate the work of art into something mainstream; convert it into something that's quirky, simplistic but intriguing like a Stephen King novel; and then sell it to a public that's thirsting for something that's not so formulaic.

In other words, give them a reason to spend $10 in the middle of the summer when there are no holidays to buy for, and a weak economy that's keeping everybody away from Barnes & Noble.

That may sound a little too challenge -- and maybe even a little impossible -- when the subject is bulimia. But what if I told you that the main character, the afflicted, is a boy?

And what if I told you that the source of inspiration was myself (that's what it says in the book -- no lie)?

And that Robin Friedman, the writer, still managed to capture the dark and light elements of eating disorders without having to resort to the learn-a-lesson-each-day, Disney-channel-style of scriptwriting that's not so amusing and as tedious as shucking corn?

Surprised yet? Frankly, I'm amazed.

Robin has already written a series of critically acclaimed children's and young-adult novels that explore the trivial -- though often humorous -- experiences of kids as they grow up. But her next book, Nothing, which will be released in August, is a personal triumph because she was able to conquer a topic that would be tough for anyone to describe -- including the people who live it -- without having to resort to exploitation or derision.

Friedman even admits to being surprised herself when I told her of my experiences that began in college. Men, or boys, are not typically associated with an illness that's more closely associated with women -- and nearly glamorized by female stars who regularly appear on the cover of Us magazine.

"When I tell people I have a book coming out about a boy with bulimia, they are very, very surprised," Friedman said. "Most people, including myself, were not aware that men and boys could suffer from eating disorders."

Nothing shows how Friedman has the ability to easily crossover into another, more serious topic without losing her voice -- particularly her ability to peer into the human soul and discover what's uniquely compelling about each individual.

"It was a challenge for me to present this story from the point of view of my main character, 17-year-old Parker Rabinowitz, because it's told in first person in his voice," Friedman said. "And, like all of the other characters in the book, Parker does not know, nor understand, what's happening to him -- why he's binging, why he's purging, what it means, what it is, what the consequences will ultimately bring."

The characters are the typical ones usual found in Robin's novels -- young adult teenagers with, presumably, nothing much to lose. But they're not the players in another simplistic Disney channel show or Brady Bunch episode that barely scratch the surface of serious issues (hey Jan -- I saw Greg smoking!).

Indeed, these are young adults with adult problems. And they're problems that are not typically associated with age, socio-economic class and, in particular, their gender. Robin has done enough research to show how they confront their troubles with a combination of vulnerability but also maturity.

"It was also important to me to present bulimia in all its complexity," Friedman said. "My research showed eating disorders aren't about food, but about control. I needed to create a sadly familiar world of modern teenage pressures, in which competitiveness, stress, the need for approval from others, and the pursuit of unattainable perfection can wreak total, tragic havoc on a seventeen-year-old's body and soul, in ways that last a lifetime."

The book isn't without Robin's typical lightheartedness, either. Another voice in the novel is Parker's little sister, Danielle, who gets into a little bit of spat with another character about movies they're choosing to watch -- just as Parker's life continues to crash, and impact those who love him.

"Is 'Singing in the Rain' any good?" Rachel asks.
"Yeah, it's good," Danielle says. "It's happy and there's a lot of dancing."
"How about 'The Band Wagon?' "
"Same."
"'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?' "
"Same"
"'The Music Man?' "
"They're all the same! They're all happy and...unrealistic!"

Then as part of an ongoing series within the book, Danielle writes broken poetry to her brother that he may or may not ever read. It ends thusly: "Dear Parker... Are you ever coming back? Love, Danielle."

It took the right author to present this in such an engrossing, balanced, effective and even inspirational way. Perhaps Robin Friedman, and no one else, was just the right fit.

When I first told Robin about my history, I could see her connecting in a way that displayed a combination of humility, empathy and sympathy -- a rare trait for anybody in a society that's too busy to communicate in ways that are more complex than a one-sentence e-mail.

Robin, in fact, is on a short list of people in my life who, I believe, can connect with people on an emotionally deep level. She has a sincerity -- as well as a raw and honest, but affecting laugh -- that can put the most unrefined person at ease.

So, maybe I shouldn't be so surprised, huh?

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