The Books: Life Without Friends (Ellen Emerson White)

Daily Book Excerpt: YA fiction/children’s books:

19969.jpgNext book on the shelf is Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

Ellen Emerson White was pretty famous in Rhode Island – she was a young woman from Rhode Island and she published her first novel – called Friends for Life and it was kind of a big hit, at the time. I was in high school when that book was published, and I think White was – 23? It was amazing to all of us that she was so close to us in age, and she had a book out!! Rhode Island treats its literary celebrities quite well. She did readings everywhere, book signings … She grew up in the town right next to mine – and it just was odd to think that she had written a book! Oh, and it was a young adult novel – not strictly a romance, it had a thriller aspect to it as well. Kind of a I know what you did last summer thing. But it’s a good book. She’s not a flashy writer, but she is a good writer – and I still think, even years later, that she is TERRIFIC at dialogue. Sometimes entire pages go by with two people just talking to each other, back and forth, and sometimes you get the “he said” or “she said” – but she doesn’t insert herself editorially into the conversations. The characters just talk. And you never lose track of who is talking, you know EXACTLY what is going on … it’s so so fun to read, especially if you like the characters. So Friends for Life was kind of a big hit – and we all read it – because she was a Rhode Islander and we wanted to participate, vicariously, in her success. After that, I kept up with her and kept reading her books. She ended up writing a really popular series called The President’s Daughter – I LOVED them. They were about the trials and tribulations of being the teenage daughter of the President of the United States. I think there are 3 in the series. They are still in print and they’re terrific. But to me – the book I’m excerpting today – Life without Friends – is her best book. I know, it’s so silly to be talking about this stuff as though it’s feckin’ Jane Austen or something – but I love and respect all kinds of books – and if you can tell me a good story, I don’t CARE. If you are able to tell a story without treating me like I’m a dimwit then I love you. (I picked up a book yesterday, read the first paragraph, and put it down again – because I had read all I needed to read. No surprises would be in the book. The author was phoning it in. IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH. I hate obvious writing. And in my estimation, a book like Good Night Moon is better writing than that piece of crap book I browsed today. Even in Good Night Moon the language is soft, poetic – and still somewhat surprising. It’s a world you can lose yourself in. Margaret Wise Brown respects her reader.) Ahem. I’ll stop ranting now.

I’m just saying all of this because I love the “Young Adult” genre – especially when it respects the reader – which is usually (especially with books like this) a teenage girl. Ellen Emerson White is really good at it. And I can’t understand why Life Without Friends (the book I’m excerpting today) has gone out of print. If you ever see it in a second-hand bookshop, and you’re into this kind of literature – I highly recommend you pick it up. It’ll make you feel really good when you read it. I’m such a fan of this book that I even considered adapting it for the screen – this totally should be a movie. It would be a ginormous hit.

So basically, here’s the plot. It’s kind of a sequel to Friends for Life – some of the same characters. In Friends for Life – a girl dies – she somehow gets mixed up with the wrong crowd at her chichi Boston prep school – and she dies. Her best friend Susan is haunted by her dead friend – and it’s not that she investigates the crime – the crime is solved – But she goes about trying to deal with the loss, deal with her grief, and deal with her RAGE at the “wrong crowd of kids” who caused her friend’s death. In Life without Friends – Susan is no longer the star, she’s a peripheral character. The star of this book is Beverly – and she was one of the kids in that “wrong crowd” – and she is inadvertently responsible (because she said nothing, she didn’t intervene) with the death of Colleen, I think her name was. Beverly is a privileged kid – with a father who teaches at, oh, Harvard – and she has everything – but she got mixed up in the wrong crowd, she dated a bad bad guy – who abused her, punched her in the face – but she loved him. She had sex with him. She was 16 and the whole thing was too much, too soon. She’s a MESS. Life without Friends is Beverly’s aftermath of that whole tragedy. She is racked with guilt, she has NO friends anymore, she is forced, as punishment, to see a psychiatrist every week – she has a raging ulcer – Her father is very strict, and is very unhappy with his daughter, and the trouble she has gotten into. Beverly is not a happy camper. She is 17 years old, and it is like she is just enduring her life. She has a bad attitude. Her stepmother, Maryann, (such a terrific character) keeps trying to befriend her stepdaughter – she is calm, open, and yet nobody’s fool. Maryann is not an idiot, and she won’t be treated like a doormat – and even though Beverly keeps rejecting her, she keeps reaching out. She just doesn’t want Beverly to be lost to them again. If Beverly starts having problems, she wants to make sure that she knows. Beverly feels harassed by all this attention. She is treated like a pariah at her school. She hates her psychiatrist. She is prickly, angry, defensive. You kind of end up just loving her, even though she’s totally not pleasant – You can feel how much she bottles everything up, you can feel her underlying sadness that she will not allow herself to experience – you just want her to let her guard down, and tell her everything will be okay.

Very early on in the book, she’s taking her dog for a walk in Boston Common, and she sits to rest. She sees a gardening crew out working … and becomes kind of … taken (at least, visually) – with one of them. A big beefy guy, maybe 19 years old, wearing a Red Sox hat – and joking around with everyone. He ends up realizing that he is being watched and comes over to talk to her. His name is Derek. Guys: Derek is a KICK-ASS character. In my mind, he’s just a great romantic hero. He’s tough, funny, baffled by this girl who seems to have “chosen” him as her friend … She is mean to him when he tries to be nice to her, she doesn’t want romance – it freaks her out – and yet – somehow – they keep just hanging out. She tells him nothing about her past. He seems like such a good guy, an open-faced simple guy – and the fact that she was such a bad girl, and did nothing to stop Colleen’s death – also, just the fact that she had had sex before and maybe he would think she was a slut – she fears that something like that would be unforgivable to him. She has a lot of secrets. Derek can feel the secrets, and sometimes he asks – but mainly he doesn’t push. They “hang out”. Derek has a mild air of confusion the entire time. Can a girl and a guy be “just friends”? If they go out to Brigham’s for ice cream, is it a date? Beverly is firm that it is not. She can’t handle it. Her experience of dating involved being punched in the face by a guy who sounds like the Preppy Murderer. You know, one of those cocky rich prep school boys. Derek is strong and tough, and even though Beverly thinks he is so cute – something about his strength makes her nervous. He is nothing other than gentle with her – but she wonders what would happen if he turned that strength against her? She knows she wouldn’t stand a chance. Eventually all of this comes out, in the course of their friendship (which takes up the entire book – the whole book is just Beverly and Derek, walking around Boston, talking – I love it) – and Derek is kind of hurt that she would think he would ever do anything to hurt her. Etc. You get the idea.

Over the course of the story – romance, of course, keeps kind of bubbling up – but Derek and Beverly both don’t know how to deal with it. Beverly’s father is highly suspicious of his daughter’s taste in men, for good reason, and he is kind of an asshole to Derek when he first meets him. Oh, and there are some really good observations in here – about class issues. Beverly is from the upper echelon of Boston society. It is a given that not only will she go to college, she’ll go to Harvard or Yale. It’s not even a question. Derek is “blue collar” (not wacky about that term) – which basically means – he was never a ‘school person’ – He grew up in a rough neighborhood, he works construction, and he thinks he’s dumb. There’s a great section where she asks him what his plans are and he says he’s thinking about the Army. And this is so far outside Beverly’s experience, that she realizes her own limitations. She asks herself – why am I so uncomfortable right now? Why can’t I think of anything to say?? It’s a good observation, I think. Derek doesn’t know anyone who just assumes they’ll go to Harvard, and Beverly doesn’t know anyone in the Army. But for whatever reason – these two people are just able to relax with each other. You can see Beverly thawing over the course of the book. It’s not all smooth – there are miscommunications – there’s a moment when Beverly turns away from him, and he reaches out to grab her arm, stop her from turning – and instinctively, she slaps his hand away, and cowers away from him, thinking he’s going to hurt her. Derek is stunned by this kind of crap. ‘What the … I was just taking your arm ….”

Anyway, as you can tell – I ADORE this book. It’s incredibly romantic, in the end – and you really feel like – wow. These 2 people are gonna have a chance. Not only that – but whatever happens, the couple of months that they spent bumming around together has had a lasting impact on both of their lives. Lovely book.

Here’s an excerpt where Beverly invites Derek over to have dinner with her family – always awkward – and then they go to a movie, where … suddenly it is totally not clear that they are not on a date. At this point, Derek still doesn’t know Beverly’s back-story – and why she’s so skittish and weird. He seems to just accept that that is who she is. Eventually she comes clean – but in this excerpt they’re still strolling around, kind of lost in their own thoughts. I just love her dialogue. It’s kind of a PG-13 excerpt, yeah!!

Excerpt from Life Without Friends by Ellen Emerson White

Dinner, to Beverly’s surprise, was kind of happy and relaxed. Derek ate a lot, but he talked a lot, too. He and her father seemed to be getting along okay, and Oliver obviously thought that Derek had fallen off a Christmas tree or something. After, it even seemed natural for him to be helping with the dishes and saying things like that he was kind of a fan of Brillo pads. What about Silverstone? Maryanne asked. Me, I’m a cast-iron man.

“Mr. Johnson,” Derek said, when the dishes were finished. “is it all right if Beverly and I head out for a while?”

Her father nodded. “Not too late.”

Her father liked him. A friend she had chosen. Unreal. She started up to her room to get a sweater.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Derek said, handing her his jeans jacket. “You get cold, you can wear this.”

Beverly flushed, but took the jacket, holding it awkwardly in one hand. “I will be home early,” she said to her father, who nodded. A benign nod, not a stern one.

“So,” Derek said when they got outside. “You feel like going to a movie or what?”

She shrugged, noticing that it was kind of cold, but too shy to put the jacket on. “Whatever.”

“How about we go over to the Sack Cheri and just see whatever’s playing when we get there?”

She nodded.

“You look cold,” he said as they walked towards Boylston Street, and draped the jacket over her shoulders.

“No, I’m –”

“Wear it,” he said. ” ‘F if you catch cold or something, your father’ll be mad at me.”

She slipped it on, noticing right away how nice it smelled, rolling the sleeves up to her wrists. Cigarettes, sawdust, grass cuttings. A little motor oil, maybe. Man smells.

“Look better in it than I do,” he remarked, reaching into the front pocket of the jacket to get his cigarettes, lighting one for each of them.

Beverly smiled, and as they walked, automatically let her hands go into the side pockets. There was stuff in the pockets, and she lifted each object out an inch or two to look at it. A couple packs of matches. What was left of a roll of ButterRum LifeSaveres. A soft, neatly folded navy blue bandana. Some change. A Swiss Army knife.

The knife made her nervous, and she ran her thumb along the outside of the closed large blade. “Um, what do you use this for?”

“Weapon mostly,” he said. “Corkscrew’s pretty damn lethal.”

She smiled uneasily.

He took the knife, pulling out various blades and tools. “Comes in pretty handy. Like, I’m always forgetting to buy beer with twist-off caps and stuff.”

“You don’t just do it with your teeth?”

He shook his head. ” ‘F I do, I just end up biting off the end of the bottle and then it’s hard to drink.”

Beverly laughed. One thing for sure, he was quick.

“See, like, it has all these screwdrivers and an awl and tweezers – all kinds of excellent stuff.”

Beverly nodded.

“And sometimes, I don’t know, when work is stupid, I make stuff, you know? There’s all these sticks and stuff around, and – I mean, I make stupid stuff – throw it away mostly – but sometimes I make little – boats and things.” He coughed. “Dumb-looking boats. I just -” He stopped. “Getting kind of verbal, hunh?” He closed the knife completely, putting it in his pocket.

“Like, what do you make?”

He shrugged, his shoulders hunching up.

“I’m interested,” she said. “What do you make?”

“Stupid stuff. You know.”

“Like what?”

He sighed and pulled a long, thin piece of wood out of one of the top pockets of the jacket, handing it to her. She frowned at it: about eight inches long, very smooth, with six sides, and a point at one end, the other end flat.

“I call it,” he paused, ” ‘Ballpoint.'”

Beverly laughed, recognizing the object.

“Was trying to make a cap and all,” he said, “but the wood kept splitting.”

Beverly turned the wood over in her hands, amused. It did look like a Bic pen. “I like it.”

“Oh yeah?” He put the wood back in the pocket, Beverly kind of surprised that his fooling with the jacket while she was wearing it didn’t bother her. “Got one at home you’d really like then. Call it ‘Door Key’.”

Beverly laughed.

“If you’re nice to me, I might make you a toothbrush or something.”

“Never use them,” she said.

Now he laughed, holding the door of the movie theatre for her. They were early for all three of the movies, but after wasting quarters on video games, ended up in the outer space action one. The theatre wasn’t very crowded, and they sat in the middle, near the left. Derek, of course, had gotten popcorn and candy. Lots of candy.

“Want you eating some too,” he said, opening the box of Jujy-fruits.

She leaned over, examined the array of candy, then leaned back, shaking her head. “I only like Raisenettes.”

He started to stand up. “Hey, no problem, I can just –”

“Joke,” she said.

He stopped halfway. “I knew that.”

She nodded.

“I did.”

She nodded.

“Just, you know, didn’t want to burst your bubble.” He looked at the candy, then slapped the box of Milk Duds into her hand. “Eat these.”

“Chicks really go for that,” she said and slapped them into his hand.

There were some previews – pretty dumb action movies, mostly – then, the lights went down.

“Arm’s kind of stiff,” Derek muttered.


“Just have to stretch it out or something,” he said, and slung it across the back of her seat.

Beverly grinned wryly. Cute.

“I mean, don’t want to get in your way or anything,” he said.

Beverly glanced around, afraid that other people were being bothered. “Just shut up and watch the movie.”

“Oh.” He settled himself more comfortably. “So, it’s okay?” he said.

People turned around, frowning, and Beverly jabbed her elbow into his ribs.

“I want you to be happy,” he said, with his little-boy expression.

“Then, shut up.”

“Okay,” he whispered, the same people turning to frown.

“Jerk,” Beverly said.

“Yeah.” He sat back, smiling up at the screen, and looking at him, Beverly smiled too, moving very slightly closer before looking up at the movie.

“This is such a nice blouse you’re wearing,” he whispered. Loudly.

Beverly pressed her teeth together. “Derek, it’s a sweat shirt.”

The people in front of them got up, moving across the theatre.

“It’s lovely fabric,” he said.

“Derek, if you don’t shut up, we’re going to get thrown out of here.”

“Aw, hell,” he said, looking unhappy. “And I’m supposed to be reviewing it for The Globe.”

She was tempted to smack him, but he was looking at her with such a cute smile that she just shook her head and focused on the movie. It was a dumb movie – mostly asteroids and lasers – and she found herself watching him instead. His eyes and mouth looked all happy – he pretty much always looked happy – and suddenly, unexpectedly, she liked him so much that she leaned up to kiss his cheek.

“Hey, woah,” he said.

He’d turned to look at her, so she kissed his mouth this time.

“You, uh,” he shifted the popcorn to his other leg, “you don’t like the movie?”

“What,” she kissed him again, “you like it?”

“Well – ” he cleared his throat. “Kind of. I mean, before. I mean -” he hesitated, not kissing back. “Do – friends – do this?”


His mouth relaxed into a grin. “They do?”

“All the time.”

“Well, hell with the movie then.” He dropped the popcorn, brining his left arm over to put it around her. “I’m kind of animal,” he said against her mouth. “Just slap me if I bug you or anything.”

She laughed. “Count on it.”

Things got intense pretty fast, the arm of the chair between them very definitely in the way – Beverly not sure if she was disappointed or relieved.

“You are an animal,” she said quietly.

“Yeah, I know.” He withdrew his hand. “Been slapped so many times, I lost track.”

“That many women?”

“No, just that many times.” He rested his arms on her shouldres. “Guess I forgot myself or something. Especially, like, with you being so beautiful.”

“I’m going to slap you,” Beverly said.

“Yeah, I figured.” he tried to move to a more comfortable position, the seat arm still in the way. “Can see why people buy those VCR things.”

“Yeah.” Beverly swallowed, noticing that the other two people near them had moved. She looked back at Derek, regretting having initiated the whole thing. Things would be different now, him pressuring her all the time, wanting –

“If you’d rather,” he said, “we could just hold hands or something.”

She nodded, relieved.

“And, you know, look at the movie.”

She nodded.

“Like to get my money’s worth,” he said.

“A financial wizard.”

“Yup, that’s me.”

So they held hands and looked at the movie. Whatever the hell it was.

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15 Responses to The Books: Life Without Friends (Ellen Emerson White)

  1. Harriet says:

    Oh, wow, that sounds really interesting! And my library has a copy, so I’m in luck. I checked out The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I mean Noel) the other day, and it was great too. I’ll have to start making a list of all the books you recommend.

  2. just1beth says:

    Ok, I NEVER EVEN HEARD OF THIS BOOK and now I am yelling at you on your blog. Ahem. Sorry. I must have been off at Ocean Skate with Regina. Why do I not know this book??? I must find it and read it during my imposed silence of two weeks!!!

  3. red says:

    Beth – you will LOVE IT!! Let me know if you can’t find it – I’ll lend you mine.

  4. red says:


    //I must have been off at Ocean Skate with Regina. //


  5. red says:

    Harriet – I love that you just read Leon (Noel) – what a book!!!

    Let me know what you think of this Life Without Friends – I don’t know, I just find it really good, in a simple unobtrusive way.

  6. Harriet says:

    OK, Sheila, it’s all you fault that I got no sleep last night! I went to the library and checked out Friends for Life and Life Without Friends, and I was going to just read a chapter or two of the first one since it was already midnight when I was going to bed, but instead I finished both of them and turned out the light at 3:43! They were so good–you’re right. I was so engrossed that I forgot to pay attention to your remarks on the way she writes dialogue that now I’ll have to look through them again.

    What an author–I read the little blurb about her on Friends for Life, and it says she’s a senior majoring in English and Ed. (!!!) That’s pretty amazing by itself, but the next book is published just 4 years later, and she has several other books out already and the book says she doesn’t have any other job but is making her living as a writer. That’s incredible!

  7. red says:

    Harriet – hahahahaha I LOVE that!! I’m so psyched you went out and read them both!!

    I forgot – that’s right – she was in high school when she wrote Friends for Life. It amazed all of us – she lived in the town next to ours – and … she had a book out. what??? I think she went to Brown? Is that right?

    I’m so glad you liked them as much as I did.

  8. Harriet says:

    Um, let’s see…Friends for Life is a first run paperback, and it says she’s a senior at Tufts. I like her author photo and little bio–she looks like a girl I would have been friends with in school, if only I were older and lived in a different part of the country (I was born in 82 and I’m from Kansas, so not much chance of her showing up in my English class!). Now it looks like I’m going to have to find the rest of her books. I get obsessed, too, but usually about books instead of people. It’s such a glorious feeling!

  9. red says:

    harriet – Oh, she went to Tufts! Cool!

    It looks to me like she is still writing and publishing, so stuff like that always makes me happy. her series about the daughter of the US President is really good, too. I can’t remember what they’re called – but the titles are something obvious like: “The President’s Daughter”.

  10. veronica evans says:

    I’ve read this book so many times and i’m happy to finally find someone who even knows about this book. I actually haven’t read the first book, for fear that it might taint the image that i have of beverly. I think i might just have to order it at my library. The first time i read it i was in the 7th grade and this book lifted my spirt everytime i thought about her and derek. Now im in my junior year in high school and i’m writing an essay about it. The prompt of the essay: Alienation.

  11. sheila says:

    Veronica – I so wish it was more well-known. It’s just fantastic! The first book is pretty much a straight-up thriller, with a little bit of Mean Girls thrown in – and Beverly is pretty awful in that book. A terrible person.

    I think Life Without Friends is much better.

    Good luck with your essay!!

  12. Kan says:

    Hey everyone,

    I am also a HUGE fan of this book but theres no need to dissect it as Sheila has done a phenomenal job.

    In support of great YA adult literature, please work to get this book in print again, especially in ebook format which would be ridiculously easy and convenient for a lot of people.

    You can contact the publisher or so something as simple as visiting the book’s amazon page and indicating that you would like to have Life Without Friends in ebook format. Here’s the link:

    Love, Peace & Girl Power!

  13. sheila says:

    Kan – awesome! Thank you so much for the information and the suggestion. Yes, this is a special special book!

  14. julie says:

    wow, FINALLY, I read this book when I was in middle or early high school in the early 90s and I LOVED it but I couldn’t remember the title. Finally I googled young adult novel boston girl ulcer father stepmother and came across your blog post. I am thrilled! I’m going to order a copy so I can read it again. Thank you!

    • sheila says:

      // I googled young adult novel boston girl ulcer father stepmother //

      Julie, okay, that is BRILLIANT!!!

      So glad you can re-experience the book again! It’s a keeper!

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