We are all products of our environment, shaped by our families, our communities, our societies, our times. Consequently, whenever writing a piece of period fiction–whether a historical novel or a fictional memoir–one must pay careful attention to the world surrounding the characters, not only reproducing it as accurately as possible but also showing how it shapes the characters’ lives and choices. But (and this is equally, maybe even more, important) one must also acknowledge and show the ways environment doesn’t shape the characters’ lives and choices, honor each character’s innate needs and empirical beliefs where they run counter to the trends of their world, when they hearken back or look forward to some alternate standard.
Becca’s Book is set in a time and place of unprecedented sexual freedom–an American coed college campus in the late 1970s. Following the liberations of the 60s and early 70s and preceding the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases–most notably and devastatingly the scourge of AIDS in full conflagration by the mid 80s–the very short period from the mid 70s through the early 80s was dominated by the attitude that sex was free, could be engaged in without cost. As a result, promiscuity was not only widely accepted but also, in some circles anyway, expected.
Zach and Becca’s relationship unfolds in such an environment, and is certainly shaped and accelerated by the freedoms of the period. Yet at the same time both characters, each in their own way, push back against the Zeitgeist of sexual freedom, the delusion that such intimate contact can occur without physical or emotional cost. They voice some of these reservations in the following exchange that is strangely private despite occurring while they’re seated in the middle of a debauched off-campus party:
Becca rolled her face toward Zach’s ear. “Is it just me, or is everybody in here on the make?” She’d just watched a hulking guy with a ball cap turned around backwards on his head approach a petite blond girl, talk for a few minutes, then lead her toward the door with his meaty hand sliding down her back and under the waist band of her tight jeans.
Zach nodded. “At least two aren’t.”
“I guess everybody’s feeling energized after the long break and with the start of semester.”
“Staking their claims.”
“Something like that.”
“And the last undergraduate semester for some.”
“Probably for most here—Lori and Megan are both seniors.”
“Need to sow their oats while there’s still time.”
“Sow something, anyway.”
“Seems a little depraved.”
Becca nodded. “Probably a sociology paper in this somewhere.”
“Yeah, but who’d want to write it?”
The odd thing is that while Zach and Becca find common ground in their objection to unfettered sexual expression, their objections arise for different reasons, reasons that are linked to background and need and that highly personal and malleable compass called morality.
If you want to see (or hear) the whole scene, it can be found here.