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The Tulip Touch by Anne Fine. Little, 1997. 160p
ISBN 0-316-28325-8 $15.95 Gr. 5-8

Natalie is thrilled to live in the grand Palace Hotel, and she instantly acquires a friend in Tulip, the neighbor across the fields. Tulip's family life is grim, so she spends a great deal of time with Natalie; despite-or perhaps because-of Tulip's tende ncy towards lying, manipulation, and incipient criminal behavior (which result in Natalie's parents' sporadic attempts to disengage their daughter from the friendship), Natalie is obsessed with her. Finally Tulip's behavior is too much even for Natalie, and she undertakes the difficult task of breaking from Tulip, discovering that dangerous reprisal waits just around the corner.

Horror novels can't beat the right kind of realistic fiction: this book is energized with guilt and risk, anger and frustration, alert to subtleties yet written with age-appropriate clarity. Tulip is magnetic and explosive, a stick of dynamite playing w ith matches, whose compulsive appeal is understandable (she's endlessly creative both in games and conversation-the "Tulip touch" is Natalie's father's term for the extra fillip to her lies that makes them seem credible). As she grows older, her mayhem i ncreases in believable and frightening ways: she escalates from setting fires in trash bins to burning down sheds, and she repeatedly visits a bereaved family asking if their drowned daughter can come for a walk. Natalie's checking of dates and times to ensure the impossibility of Tulip's involvement in local murders seems absolutely reasonable. And while the withdrawal of Natalie's friendship makes her angrier, there's little indication that such friendship would have redeemed her from her increasingl y destructive existence.

Problematic friendships are common enough, in their way, but Fine doesn't let any of the causes or effects go unnoticed, and she's inspired and brutally fair in her depiction of the adults' ambivalence and contradictory impulses. Natalie's parents are go od parents (and they've indulged or tolerated Tulip, particularly at hotel Christmases, for years), but Natalie is absolutely correct about their flaws. Her mother is more concerned with Natalie's younger brother Julius than with Natalie (a fact that Natalie exploits when her mother begins to undermine Natalie's resolve to separate from Tulip); both parents are torn between wanting the dangerous influence away from Natalie and hoping that their daughter will continue to be friends with Tulip so that they don't feel irresponsible about setting the poor unfortunate adrift.

Nina Bawden's Humbug (BCCB 11/92) is one of the best of recent books depicting a child whose troublemaking goes beyond mere mischief to willful, destructive, and possibly unstoppable malice. Fine approaches the topic differently, however. The s ource of Tulip's problem is very clearly her home life, and the book, without bogging down in psychology or hammering the point home relentlessly, offers some harrowing glimpses of Tulip's family through her echoing of what she's heard there (she croons t o a temporarily pilfered rabbit, "Who's a smart bunny? Who's going to be a good girl? Who's Tulip's special one? She's not going to make a fuss, is she? Oh, no. She isn't going to do that. Because she enjoys it really, doesn't she? And if she start s struggling, she'll get hurt"). Yet what's to be done about it remains another question-Natalie's father doesn't seem unjustified in his description of the limits and scope of social services, and neither he nor the book are prepared to exonera te Tulip of all responsibility for her own actions. "You want to know if Tulip's crazy, or bad?" Natalie's mother asks an inquiring policeman, and we're not sure of the answer by now, but it's too late for it to make a difference. Either way she's someo ne from whom Natalie must escape, and in doing so must, in her own self-defense, betray years of friendship.

Readers will find it fitting that Natalie wins her freedom from Tulip only by using the skills Tulip has taught her; Tulip is, as always, better at these games than Natalie, however, so it's savagely truthful that Tulip has the final incendiary word. The book is penetrating about how people are with each other, in big and small ways, and the consequences of every interaction. While many children's books underestimate the intensity of youthful friendship and the seriousness of its repercussions, this one goes right to the heart of the matter.

--Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor

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This page was last updated on September 1, 1997.