“At first, I did not know it was your diary. I thought it was a very sad, handwritten book.”
—Brynn (Rebel Wilson) in Bridesmaids
When you were in high school, did you ever read a book and think Finally. Someone gets it.? Well, I did. Megan McCafferty is the author of a book series (deemed–ugh I hate this term–chick lit) featuring protagonist/narrator Jessica Darling. Or as her father nicknamed her, Notso. As in Jessica-not-so-darling. Throughout the five novels about Jess, the reader experiences her evolution from annoyed, angst-ridden high school student to successful twenty-something. Since Jess tells her story through diary entries in Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, I had the amazing experience to feel Jess’s anger, frustration and rare joy right along with her. And her life–during high school, at least–was a series of acid-tongued observations from the outside.
Like many of the Outside Girls, Jess’s story begins with her being separated from her best friend, Hope. After her brother ODs, Hope’s family decides to start over in another community. Unsurprisingly, Jess is crushed. As she explains in Sloppy Firsts, “I told my parents not to even dare throwing me a Sweet Sixteen party. The very thought of ice-cream cake and pink crepe paper makes me want to hurl. Not to mention the fact that I can’t even imagine who would be on the guest list since I hate all of my other friends. I know my parents think I’m being ridiculous. But if the one person I want to be there can’t be there, I’d rather just stay home. And mope. Or sleep.”
This is not an admission that you are likely to witness in many teen-themed narratives. Jess is supposed to want to go to parties, make other friends, and enjoy what is left of high school. Instead, she would rather be miserable and alone than be miserable and forced to socialize. I think the reason we can understand Jess’s intentional distance from her other friends and her biting opinions about them is because we see from her vantage point. For example, take this selection of Jess’s peers and her predictions about them:
“Scotty Glazer: from Most Athletic to Most Middle-Aged Yet Totally Immature
Bridget Milhokovich: from Best Looking to Best Bet She’ll Peak Too Soon
Manda Powers: from Biggest Flirt to Most Likely to End Up on Jerry Springer
Sara D’Abruzzi: from Class Motormouth to Future Double Agent Who Would Betray Her Country for Liposuction“
Reading Jess’s thoughts about her classmates’ future allows us to be much more empathetic than we would be hearing those words aloud. She would just sound bitter and cruel. But reading her diary means gaining access to her thoughts, perceptions and reactions. Since we have only Jess’s writing to go on, we see Scotty as a jock wasting his brain and Bridget, Manda, and Sara as a highlighted/lip glossed trio straight out of hell. Jess’s writing allows us to relate to her motivation as an Outside Girl and shows her in a sympathetic light (even when she is at her most volatile).
And this is not out of the norm. While analyzing the writing patterns of students in their book Fashioning the Feminine: Girls, Popular Culture and Schooling, Pam Gilbert and Sandra Taylor found that “female writers more frequently assigned emotional states to their characters,” while male writers were defined by their verbally/physically abusive characters. One could argue that McCafferty’s books are not action-packed. And that’s not inaccurate. But it is also what makes them unique and interesting. As much as I love to see Veronica Mars and the upcoming Buffy Summers explore their outside status while kicking ass, it is also nice to encounter a more internalized story. The action in the books are our proximity to Jess’s emotions and observations of the world around her. The reader doesn’t get to inhabit Scotty, Bridget, Manda, or Sara’s head. We have to trust Jess and her version of the story. But that means we also can understand every decision that she makes.
(Image #1 courtesy of gaudyalternative.blogspot.com; #2 courtesy of ellabeereads.blogspot.com; #3 kariannalysis.com)