February 21, 2008


How Not to Be Popular. By Jennifer Ziegler. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

The Opposite of Invisible. By Liz Gallagher. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

      Take a staple of chick lit for teenagers – popularity and all its pluses and minuses – and play a few games with it, and you have How Not to Be Popular. Jennifer Ziegler's book is all about Maggie Dempsey, whose parents never lost the wanderlust of their hippie days and insist on uprooting themselves (and Maggie) every year or so to go to a new part of the country. Enough, thinks Maggie. She lost good friends when they moved after her freshman year in high school. She lost girlfriends and a boyfriend, Trevor, by moving after sophomore year. And now there’s another move, to Austin, Texas, and Maggie is not going to get involved, not going to make friends or be friends, not going to get tied down to anyone in a community where she is merely a transient. And of course, things don’t go at all the way Maggie plans. She tries to say and do the wrong things at the wrong times, but one of the local misfits becomes her friend anyway. And as for that left-behind boyfriend over whom Maggie still pines – well, she finds herself with feelings for someone in Austin, too…someone quite unexpected. “When did my life get so odd?” wonders Maggie. But of course it gets odd only in (ultimately) good ways. “I’m not supposed to be having fun,” says Maggie as she looks for “cringeworthy” subjects to discuss on a date with her unlikely crush. Each chapter in the book begins with a “Tip” in which Maggie suggests ways to avoid getting involved with anyone, such as, “If you find yourself accidentally out on a date, sabotage it with all your might.” The tips don’t work, but it’s enjoyable watching them fail. What is less enjoyable is the portrayal of Maggie’s thoroughly one-dimensional parents, who call her “Sugar,” “Shug,” “Butterfly,” “Doodle” and “Honeybee,” watch for the color of her aura, and suggest she have a colonic when she is emotionally distraught. Of course, the parents decide they will actually stay in Austin, but by that time Maggie has messed everything up. The book moves to a hopeful if thoroughly predictable ending, but Dempsey deserves credit for getting it there via some interesting byways.

      The Opposite of Invisible, Liz Gallagher’s first novel, is more conventional in its straightforward consideration of popularity and coming-of-age issues. It’s set in Seattle and is all about Alice, an aspiring artist who hangs out with her also-an-aspiring-artist best friend, a boy named Jewel. The two of them are a unit, happily invisible to all the individuals and groups around them. But then Alice finds a really great dress for the Halloween dance, and her secret crush, Simon, suddenly takes a real interest in her – while Jewel starts seeing her in a new and different light. After this development (clothes make the girl? Well, maybe), the rest of the book is about Alice’s attempts to differentiate love from a crush, and to figure out where she fits in socially now that she is no longer “invisible” to other people or to herself. Being aimed at ages 14 and up, The Opposite of Invisible contains a bit of sexual exploration, as when Alice walks home with Simon and says, “I let him feel me up under the tree,” and the two later go farther but not too far. The book’s focus, though, is emotional rather than physical connection – and that, unfortunately, makes the outcome obvious from the start. Although well enough written, The Opposite of Invisible is ultimately too pat to stand out from the many other books exploring similar-time-of-life themes.

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