Childhood favourites: Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty

Eliza Lass 24 January 2014

Work-related stress does funny things to people. Some bicker with their families, some snap pencils or cut themselves dodgy fringes with nail scissors. Some people, like me, trawl a certain unethical online retailer for used copies of their favourite childhood books. My most comforting recent rediscovery is Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry For Celia (2000). I’d missed my mate Elizabeth, the Sydney teenager who liked running and mentally writing herself letters from imagined associations like the ‘Society of People Who Are Definitely Going to Fail High School (And Most Probably Life as Well!)’ If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember its clever epistolary structure: it consists mostly of letters between Liz and Christina, assigned to one another through a writing partnership between a ‘nice private school’ and a neighbouring state school. In the course of their correspondence, Liz experiences the demise of her relationship with her beautiful, ethereal best friend, Celia. This collapse is crystalized with a double whammy of pain: though Liz realizes, with a slowly unfolding sense of betrayal, that her devotion to Celia is misplaced, she also never stops thinking or reminiscing about her.

Though shorter than Moriarty’s other masterwork, Finding Cassie Crazy, Celia is every bit as detailed as I remember it, and more impressive. Though jaded adult eyes can easily detect oft-seen YA motifs, Moriarty sows the familiar seeds of divorce, depression, virginity, suicide and low self-esteem throughout her novel so expertly, and even humorously, that her work resists all cynicism. But the story is sadder, too. Once, Liz seemed far older than me, her experiences relatable but distant; now, they are sharper. Older readers looking back have all felt the heart-stopping lurch of a childhood friendship rolling away; we have all huddled in the hollow of unrequited devotion. We have all forced ourselves to forsake someone irresistible but cold. Liz deserves better, and we can only hope the same for ourselves.

When I first read the novel, I was emotionally repressed, confused about being attracted to my girl friends as well as to boys. Now that I have realized who I am, I see quiet traces of those feelings between Liz and Celia. I wonder if Moriarty meant to encapsulate the feeling of being unconsciously but deeply in love with a friend so well, or if it was an accident. My young self enjoyed the book, but my older self makes sense of it: Celia is about the intensity of early same-sex relationships and the longing that can lie behind them. I don’t think it is projecting to acknowledge that the burgeoning of Liz’s new friendship with Christina is nothing short of a romance. After all, they communicate via letters, that most romantic form of dialogue. Moriarty’s juxtaposition of Celia and Christina is a subtle and brilliant lesson to all readers in how to be a good friend, how to soothe adolescent self-loathing through unconditional empathy and, crucially, mutual listening—but aren’t those also the marks of the best lover? Feeling Sorry for Celia is about more than just friendship: we are watching Liz find true love again. That the story’s end sees Liz with a promising heterosexual relationship on the horizon does not deny this, but further amplifies the story’s central truth: love comes and goes in many forms, and sometimes all at once.