August 18, 2011


Epic Fail. By Claire LaZebnik. HarperTeen. $9.99.

Bright Young Things. By Anna Godbersen. Harper. $9.99.

     Modern romances – whether set in today’s prep schools or yesterday’s flapper era – are not designed to challenge readers with intricacy of characterization or plot. They are intended to be swiftly paced and not-very-demanding escapist books that allow readers (mostly teenage girls) to identify with one character or several, live vicariously through a set of fictional ups and downs, and eventually emerge with a sense of completion, if not catharsis. Within this formula, both these books do a creditable job. Epic Fail is the one set in a school: Coral Tree Prep in Los Angeles (that oh-so-superficial city where author Claire LaZebnik herself lives). The central character is Elise Benton, and she has a problem: she is the daughter of the school’s new principal, so she is of course an immediate outsider. Yes, outsider, not insider – she may be “inside” in terms of the school itself, but what matters in this superficial pecking order is (of course) who the students’ parents are. And Elise cannot compete with, for example, Derek Edwards, hottest hunk in school and coolest guy of all by virtue (if “virtue” is the word) of the importance of his parents in Hollywood circles. Elise and her three sisters are fish-out-of-water types at Coral Tree until Derek’s best friend and one of Elise’s sisters become an item, which means Derek and Elise start to spend more time together. There are the usual complications of this sort of thing: difficulties within Elise’s family (including other students’ expectations that the principal’s daughters will intervene to prevent punishments and embarrassments), revenge-motivated phony text messaging, and comparatively innocent make-out sessions. There is some with-it Hollywood commentary: “Yeah, right. I could just picture my mother, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie all trooping off to Malaysia together and becoming besties on the way.” And there is the eventual discovery of true love (true for the time being, anyway): “I got lost in him, and it was the kind of lost that’s exactly like being found.” And so the various paired people reach their happy endings without an Epic Fail after all. Total superficiality, to be sure – but pleasant enough in its own formulaic way.

     Bright Young Things differs mainly because of its Jazz Age setting. The first book in a planned series, it interweaves the stories of three young women who, Anna Godbersen tells readers, are deeper than they seem on the surface. Good thing she makes that point, since the characterizations don’t. Astrid Donal is portrayed as the quintessential flapper hiding secrets, Cordelia Grey as the obsessed-with-dad searcher for a family connection, and Letty Larkspur as the fame seeker. Those very brief descriptions are all readers need to know about the characters, who otherwise behave in thoroughly expected ways and do thoroughly expected things. For example, Letty and roommates Fay, Kate and Paulette pore over Weekly Stage looking for leads: “They all hoped to make it on the stage one way or another, but Fay was currently the only roommate who earned money at it, as a chorus girl in one of the big variety shows. Glimpsing her long, coltish legs crossed and dangling from the edge of the couch, Letty found herself wondering if she would ever have the height for a job like that.” Ambiguous reference aside – Godbersen must have meant to write that Letty was glimpsing Fay’s coltish legs – this is just one of numerous entirely typical scenes that are intended to make it clear that the book is set in 1929 rather than, say, 2009. The scene-setting pervades the book: “He was wearing the tweed trousers of a knickerbocker suit, his rust-colored socks visible to his knees, although the jacket was nowhere in sight. That was what they called ‘natty,’ Letty supposed, except that everything about him was just slightly askew.” As Bright Young Things veers here and there with the stories of its three central characters, there is plenty of time for “a hot, salty torrent” of tears and other entirely unsurprising emotional ups and downs. There is little to make the characters interesting to modern readers except for a certain exoticism of the time in which their stories are set. This means that readers have to get used to the 1920s meaning of such lines as, “I’m very happy to be someplace like this, where everything is gay.” And then they have to care enough to see beyond the gaiety to the supposed emotional upheavals of the central characters. Bright Young Things is a period piece whose setting tends to be more interesting than the characters appearing in it.

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