One more round-up of Young Adult reading - Jennifer Mathieu's Moxie, Monica Gallagher's Part-Time Princesses and a whistle-stop tour through the ouevre of Sarah Dessen. Steel yourself for angst, anxiety, young women finding their agency, and some floppy-haired love interests.
Vivian’s high school, in a small town in Texas, is a hot mess of misogyny and harassment. The administration doesn’t care, the boys are a disaster, and Viv and her friends are left to suffer in silence.
And then she discovers Punk. It turns out that Viv’s mom was a Riot Grrl in the 1990s. After finding a cache of her mom’s zines, Viv sees them as the perfect way to express herself: angry, anonymous and, most of all, loud. ‘Moxie’ (the zine) succeeds beyond her wildest ambitions, introducing Viv to new friends, creating an underground of female empowerment, and of course, getting them heard.
It isn’t without trouble, of course, and Moxie contains all the ups and downs that you might expect. Moxie is a Disney After School Special version of Friday Night Lights, with all the conflicts (oh no! Moxie is banned!) and ‘surprises’ (oh wow, the cheerleader is on-side!) that fit the formula. There isn’t quite a moment where they all jump on their desks... but it isn’t far off either.
Moxie hits a lot of the right notes: the theme of finding one’s voice is powerful, and the message of creating platforms and uniting diverse experiences is, well, pretty right on. Viv herself isn’t wildly compelling - she only truly comes to life as a passionate figure when she’s talking about her mother’s punk collection. Which, coupled with the whole ‘1990s zines + music as a solution to a 2010s problem’ makes me kind of suspect Viv is actually a proxy for last generation’s high school experience! Not to infer intent, but maybe-just-maybe, this isn't actually about a contemporary teenager?
Which makes me wonder: why is this set in the modern day at all? There’s nothing gained by moving the story out of the 1990s (see: the oeuvre of Rainbow Rowell), and, if anything, Moxie’s awkwardness around all things social media actually undermines the book’s message. The online world - hell, phones - are largely hand-waved out of existence, or written about in a strangely stylised way. And the deus ex YouTubia ending is slightly wince-worthy (especially by contrast to, say, T.H.U.G.) and easily replaced by a period equivalent. Moxie is a very enjoyable book in its own right, but I couldn’t help thinking it was - perhaps ironically - not being entirely true to itself.
I stumbled on Sarah Dessen through a listicle - books about music saving your life or something like that. That led to Just Listen, which led to This Lullaby which led to another one which was discounted which led to another one that wasn’t and all of a sudden that’s four books in a row by the same author and I had to force myself to stop. They’re more-ish, y’all.
As is the case with most authors, there are a lot of similarities in Dessen's works. Dessen’s protagonists are very much of a type. They’re attractive, they’re straight, they’re middle class, and they tend to be placed as the ‘quiet member of the popular clique’ (at least initially). They’re a certain type of mainstream every-girl.
The conflicts are all kind of similar as well: Dessen protagonists are invariably dealing with the aftereffects of trauma or traumas - a family member gone awry, harassment or assault, a vicious betrayal from a close friend. The plots, such as they are, are around empowerment: finding a voice, standing up for oneself, seeking the truth - and often closure. Whatever the event is, it has shaken the girl from their path of total ordinariness. In each book, there’s a moment of acknowledgement where, despite everything looking totally right, things are actually deeply, deeply wrong.
If a Dessen book can be summed in two words, they are ‘Despite appearances’. And that’s what these books are about: people that appear fine - objects of envy - but are very much not.
Joyously, although all four books feature a romance, the boy only serves as the solution for one of them - Just Listen. And even then, despite his propensity for koans and infuriating magical togetherness (Quiet Giant Zen Boys = Manic Pixie Dream Girls), Owen is merely the avenue for Annabel’s self-discovery. Broadly - there's absolutely no shame about, or even particular focus on, sex in these books. People do, or don't, and it isn't the point of anything. It is a thing, and it is invariably less important than the people involved. What is important: the answer to the protagonist's problems isn't found in a boy, but, instead, in other women: mothers, sisters, aunts, friends. The support network from which our heroine draws strength and inspiration is, always, marvellously, female. Boys come and go (and have floppy hair, indie music, intriguing pasts and great abs), but sisterhood is forever.
Dessen books are packaged fluffy. They're undeniably crowd-pleasing: escapist protagonists, quirky Stars Hollow-esque settings, floppy-haired mystery boys, and everything else that something needs to 'sell'. But, despite appearances, there’s a lot going on under the surface. All of this is done, not just in an enjoyable way, but in a deeply, wonderfully empowering one.
[Whoops! For the sake of transparency, Goodreads says I read also read a Dessen last year: Once and For All (2017). I'll admit I didn't clock the author at first, but... I’m not going to lie: I didn’t like it. And, for the sake of my greater theory of unified Dessenage, I’m leaving it out. The power of selective reviewing. Once is pretty far out on the fringe in two ways: the romance is front and centre (and the boy is f---ing annoying) and the trauma is pretty limp (she’s seen a lot of weddings, so, like, doesn’t believe in love, yo). The resulting package is a pretty frivolous rom-com.]
Courtney, Amber, Tiffany and Michelle are the cool kids - the undisputed royalty of their high school. They’re marking time until they graduate, essentially twiddling their manicured thumbs until they’re free to go off to seek their dreams at university, in modelling, you name it.
The one thing they do enjoy? Their part-time jobs as princesses: decorative assistants at a ramshackle local amusement park. The job is easy, they secretly dig the costumes, and there are plenty of other teenage serfs eager to do their bidding.
Their jobs become more than a distraction when their other, grandiose, plans come crashing down. All of a sudden the four princesses are just that - princesses, in cheap costumes, with no way out of their crappy hometown. Worse, when a local gang starts targeting the amusement park, even this could be taken from them. Their part-time job has become their full-time livelihood, and the four girls find hidden depths as they fight to keep it.
Or... do they? Part-Time Princesses is genuinely surprising in that the character development is, well, muted. Perhaps even nonexistent. Our four heroines overcome trials and tribulations as they defend the park. They learn to rally and lead other people to a cause. They learn about new interests and new hobbies. Two of them even learn something surprising about their feelings for one another.
What they don’t learn - ever - is any sense of basic respect for other human beings. There’s never a sense of egalitarian awakening, or even simple decency. They learn about their own hidden strengths, but never to see those strengths in others. The princesses are fascinating in their own way: despite everything they face, and everything they achieve, they still don’t learn how to be nice. If anything, the result is a strangely libertarian coming-of-age story: four people who do things for themselves and achieve what they want. There’s no nuance or sense of unity, it is very limited, very focused sense of the whole.
Princess could be interpreted in two very different ways. The entire thing could, conceivably, be ironic. As much as I dislike to guess at intent, I think there are cues there: the characters’ stereotypically ‘princess’ names, maybe even the title. In which case, this isn’t a novel about people becoming better people: it is a parable about a tiny in-group essentially radicalising under pressure. Alternatively, there’s no irony at all. This is a straight-up story about four people doing a thing, and the empathy we feel for their circumstances is supposed to outweigh their contemptible personalities.
Is this the new Heathers? Definitely not. But there’s something interesting in that concept, even if the execution muddies it. (The Goodreads comments are, rather amusingly, scathing. The internet is not seeing any irony here.)