The Sparkling-Eyed Boy

Winner of the 2003 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference
Bakeless Prize for creative nonfiction
Selected by Ted Conover

A Mariner Original
The Houghton Mifflin Company

The theme of summer love, in Amy Benson’s hands, grows up: The Sparkling-Eyed Boy is a fiercely observed memoir, one that searches out the fault lines of adult nostalgia and desire. The achingly intense adolescent summer days that Amy Benson and the sparkling-eyed boy spend together on the remote shores of the St. Mary’s River of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are at the complex emotional center of The Sparkling-Eyed Boy. For her, summers meant returning from her home in Detroit to a three-month idyll on much-loved family land, owned for generations, and to a heady culture of teasing, testing local boys. For him, this land is the place he was born, where he’ll later find work, marry, and stay; and she was the girl from away, the one he had loved. “Can you pinpoint that moment? When you made a choice before you even knew that choosing was possible, or the terrifying nature of choices?” The Sparkling-Eyed Boy, with its heart-stoppingly erotic — and yet wholly imagined — scenes of illicit love, its searching riffs on love as possession, love as pain, reads like a friend’s deepest secrets, shared.

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Elle Magazine, June 2004

Though its subject is summer love, The Sparkling-Eyed Boy (Mariner) reads like a confession between girlfriends cozied up against the coldest night of the year. Amy Benson’s memoir of her lingering obsession over her first boyfriend, a townie from the Michigan Upper Peninsula enclave where her family summered, is a big what-if; thankfully, except for one pathetic encounter–she on foot, he in his minivan–Benson doesn’t actually stalk her ex. He’s left to his lot of hometown marriage and family, while the author, now nearly 30, takes a page from the original tortured teen, Sylvia Plath: She endeavors to purge her pain via poetic expression, intimagely exploring the nature of desire. –Jenny Feldman

USA Today, 20 May 2004

Benson won the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference’s prize for “creative non-fiction” by an emerging writer for her poetic memoir about unrequited first love. The girl is a teenage summer visitor from suburban Detroit. The boy is a local who would never leave Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Benson’s book is built on dreams and memories of what never happened, but could have. She calls it a “mystery story” that she keeps writing “because I’m never convinced I figured it out.”

Planet, Issue 7, Summer 2004
In The Sparkling-Eyed Boy (Mariner), first-time quthor Amy Benson takes readers on the bumpy ride of teenage first love, evoking the intensity of adolescent desire through delicate prose. The story is universal — he liked her first, she liked another boy; then she turned to him, by then his interest was waning — but Benson brings a heightened, poetic sensitivity to her depiction of unfurling adolescent love. She writes with equal feeling about the landscape in which she grew up and about the bodies of teenage boys, “their shoulder muscles swelling and tapering, their skin papering their bodies so closely.”

As a child, Benson would leave her home in suburban Detroit every summer and go with her family to a cabin on the shores of the St. Mary’s River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “Let’s face it: my sister and I were fresh meat to the local boys,” she writes. One boy, freckled and skinny, became her best friend and briefly her boyfriend before she abandoned him for college and worldy ambitions.

Looking back, Benson is astute enough to realize that her longing for the sparkling-eyed boy is in part a fantasy about a pure, boundless love, and in part nostalgia about the place and time in which she grow up. Early experiences form us, she concludes, and people leave indelible imprints upon one another. Though her language occasionally veers into sugary excess (“the star-flecks in my veins are guttering out”), Benson otherwise delivers and elegant, edgy meditation on first love. SARAH COLEMAN