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Not long after her eighth birthday, Elaine’s family moves to Toronto, where they’ve bought a house. Although Elaine imagines their new house will look like the perfect homes in her reader, the new place is unfinished, unfurnished, and surrounded by mud. Instead of being excited about having a room of her own, Elaine feels lonely and isolated without her brother nearby.
The family has moved to Toronto because Elaine’s father has become a professor in a university zoology department instead of a field researcher. Although Elaine’s parents used to dress similarly, her father begins to dress more formally, while Elaine’s mother begins to wear more traditionally feminine clothes.
On Saturdays, Elaine and Stephen go with their father to the university zoology department to keep them from bothering their mother. They love the huge building, which is full of many scientific curiosities, from snapping turtles to preserved ox eyes. Elaine and Stephen love looking at things under the microscopes that they know they shouldn’t–snot, scabs, and toe jam.
In the present, Elaine thinks about how difficult it is for her to get out of bed because of how depressed she feels. Lonely, she tried to call Ben the previous night, but heard only her own voice on the answering machine. She considers that if she were to die, her voice on the answering machine message would still linger.
Elaine visits the fashion district and decides she needs a new dress for the opening because the black dress she’d brought now feels too depressing. She considers a pink dress because she’s heard pink will make your enemies weaker. At a boutique, Elaine brings three dresses into the dressing room. She catches someone trying to snatch her wallet from her purse from under the dressing room door. She slaps the hand and hears giggling teenagers run away. She blames Cordelia.
Elaine and Stephen begin to attend school. Life at school divides boys and girls in a way Elaine has never experienced before. For the first time, she must wear a skirt, and the girls and boys play in separate parts of the schoolyard. When the school bell rings, the boys and girls must line up separately and enter through two separate doors labeled by gender, even though these doors lead to the same place. Everyone claims that the punishment for going in through the wrong door is a whipping.
At school, Elaine only sees Stephen when they line up. There’s a slight distance between them at home now too. Elaine knows she mustn’t try to talk to Stephen at school because boys get teased for spending time with their sisters or mothers.
Although Elaine finds the girls at school intimidating, she makes friends with a girl named Carol. Carol tells Elaine about things Elaine has never thought of before, like which boys she believes have crushes on her and church. Similarly, when Carol sees Elaine’s house, she’s in awe of how different Elaine’s life seems. Carol tells people about how Elaine’s family has mattresses on the floor as if they are part of a foreign culture.
One weekend, Elaine brings Carol along to the zoology building, but Carol finds the oddities gross. Stephen has fun teasing Carol with the ox eye. Afterward, the girls go to Carol’s house, where Carol shows Elaine her mother’s new sweater twin set. Elaine doesn’t understand why it’s called a twin set, but she understands the twin-like nature of the separate twin beds Carol’s parents sleep in. Elaine notices how much tidier Carol’s house is than her own.
Sometimes Elaine and Carol play with Carol’s friend Grace. Elaine stops going to the zoology building on weekends and plays with her new friends instead. At Grace’s house, Elaine and Carol always follow Grace’s lead on what games to play or else Grace fakes a headache. They color in coloring books with images of movie stars and play school with Grace as the teacher. Sometimes they cut out images of women from Eaton’s Catalogues and make collages of items for the women to own. Elaine quickly learns she’s meant to praise her friends’ collages and insult her own.
Elaine’s description of her new life in Toronto is filled with examples of artifice and superficiality. The suburbs demand an unnecessary and false division between men and women. Whereas Elaine notes that her parents wore similar clothing in the wilderness, in the suburbs they start dressing differently because they have to meet the new societal demands placed upon them. At Elaine’s school, boys and girls have to go through separate doors, but since these doors lead to the same place, their separation is artificial and unnecessary. Carol’s parents sleep in twin beds as if to disguise the reality that married couples usually have sex. Grace’s games focus on worshiping an idea of femininity perpetuated by Hollywood and also a desire for material goods. Both the coloring books and the catalogue game reinforce the idea that adult womanhood revolves around beauty and domesticity. Just as the girls in Elaine’s readers weren’t complete or accurate depictions of girlhood, neither are the ones in the coloring books and catalogues.
While the move to Toronto affects her entire family, Elaine in particular has a difficult time adjusting because of the stringent and relentless expectations placed on girls. On a practical level, Elaine has to wear a skirt even in the freezing Canadian winter, making movement difficult. Female socialization also means trivializing her accomplishments, as Elaine learns when she watches Grace and Carol criticize their own collages. In addition, Elaine finds her introduction into the strict gender separation of early adolescence extremely isolating because it cuts her off from “masculine” interests and friendships, particularly her relationship with Stephen. Elaine and Stephen initially bond over their shared curiosity about bodily grossness, but Carol’s squeamishness forces Elaine to choose between the world of girls and her brother’s world of boys. Stephen, too, must abandon Elaine in public because the mere acknowledgement that he has female relations would lead to ridicule. Therefore, Elaine’s loneliness in her new room symbolizes how moving to Toronto has separated her from sharing space, curiosity, and friendship with Stephen, and, metaphorically, stereotypically masculine pursuits.
Elaine’s friendship with Carol furthers the idea her reader gave her that she somehow doesn’t truly belong in girlhood. Whereas Elaine once thought of suburban girls as “exotic,” Carol treats the clutter and makeshift nature of Elaine’s house as noteworthy, like it comes from a foreign culture, meaning that she thinks of Elaine as the exotic one. Carol has the confidence that her family’s way of living is the normal and correct way, making Elaine’s home the outlier. Elaine has seen images of girls like Carol but not of girls like herself, and she begins thinking of herself as different. Class plays an important role in what shapes Carol’s perception of normal because Elaine’s family clearly doesn’t have as much money Carol’s does. The suburban ideal relies on maintaining enough wealth to purchase the right kinds of clothes, furnishings, and housewares, as portrayed in Grace’s catalogue game.
A sense of haunting and melancholy permeates present-day Elaine’s walk through Toronto, hinting at the frightening grip the past has on her. We know Elaine is in a terrible place emotionally, as she opens Chapter 8 describing symptoms of depression and thinking about death. In addition to her morbid thoughts, she lingers on the fact the answering machine has preserved her voice and would do so in death. Even if she were to die, Elaine could resurface in the memories of anyone who listened to that answering machine. This image reflects the way Cordelia haunts Elaine’s perception of reality. During the thwarted shoplifting attempt, Elaine thinks of the shoplifting teenager as being Cordelia—not “like” Cordelia—even though she knows Cordelia’s not there, which adds a ghostly quality to the incident. We can infer that the Cordelia who Elaine imagines isn’t the adult Cordelia, but teenage Cordelia, in other words, a Cordelia from the past. These moments demonstrate that Elaine isn’t merely reminiscing about her past, but rather, Elaine’s past haunts her.