June 12, 2008


How to Be Bad. By E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski, and Lauren Miracle. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Likely Story. By David Van Etten (Chris Van Etten, David Ozanich and David Levithan). Knopf. $15.99.

Hot Mess: Summer in the City. By Julie Kraut and Shallon Lester. Delacorte Press. $8.99.

Fact of Life #31. By Denise Vega. Knopf. $16.99.

      Sometimes one writer isn’t enough to plumb the full depths (and sometimes they really are depths) of the frothy teenage summer novel. It takes a village, or at least a group, to explore all the nuances (such as they are) of this subgenre of the teenage-angst genre. And if you’re going to put this sort of group together, you might as well get some really good individual writers – such as E. Lockhart (The Boyfriend List and others), Sarah Mlynowski (Bras & Broomsticks and its successors), and Lauren Miracle (ttyl, ttfn & othr stuf lyk that). The three heroines of How to Be Bad must have been created, one apiece, by the authors, but it doesn’t really matter who came up with Vicks, who invented Mel and who developed Jesse (or if there is in fact a one-to-one correspondence between characters and writers). What matters is how well the authors handle this most formulaic of heartthrobs-and-heartaches genres, and the answer is: pretty darn well. The girls all leave Niceville (what else?), their Florida home town, and embark on a road trip right out of Fantastical Florida, a battered old guidebook. The girls’ adventures are predictably unpredictable, revolving around boys and driving and friendship issues, with chapters told in each girl’s voice. A sample from Jesse: “But me and him hung out once at a Fourth of July bash Brady threw. Penn felt bad for me, that’s what I figure, ’cause Vicks and Brady were pretty much the only people I knew and they ended up in Brady’s bedroom doing something that I preferred not to think about.” Got that? Fluff and nonsense, to be sure, but with a certain level of insouciant amusement throughout.

      But, see, How to Be Bad is a women’s collaboration. Over on the men’s side, there’s Likely Story, cobbled together by Chris Van Etten (a writer for the soap opera One Life to Live), David Ozanich (freelancer and playwright), and David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy and other novels, usually featuring homosexual protagonists). Each chapter of Likely Story opens with a brief bit of dialogue shown within a TV screen, and there are bits of dramatic scripts in the book, too, and protagonist Mallory has a mother who is a soap-opera star, and Mallory starts blogging about the unreality of the soaps, and her mom’s agent likes the blog and thinks it has possibilities, and of course everything gets so complicated, even more so because of too-cute Dallas, male lead on the new soap opera based on what Mallory has written. “Don’t you think you’re being a little melodramatic?” asks one character at one of the many melodramatic plot points. The answer is no – not a little. Melodrama is everything that Likely Story is about. Oh – and the book’s title is also the title of Mallory’s show; surprised?

      It didn’t take three writers to come up with Hot Mess – only two. Julie Kraut and Shallon Lester paired up to create the first book either has written for teens and young adults, and they landed a sure-fire plot: high-school girls in the big city for the summer. Wait – don’t go! Sure, you’ve heard it all before, but that’s really the point of Hot Mess and other genre books like it: familiarity of characters and incidents, but with enough offbeat writing and plot twists to get you through to the end (here, page 336). Emma and Rachel are girls who believe Sex and the City was a documentary, and of course they find out that New York isn’t like that at all, except maybe a little. The roommate in their sublet, Jayla, starts setting them straight pretty quickly, and what she doesn’t do, the city and its denizens handle. While Jayla parties and Rachel dates, Emma works at an internship that features an awful boss and a hot coworker. The book is just so with-it: “Once I was balmed up and officially ready, the girls wished me good luck and I promised to text from the bathroom with updates. I tried my hardest not to pit out the tank Jayla had lent me on my way down in the elevator, but as soon as I stepped outside, my nerves totally dissipated.” Breathless is as breathless does (there’s a lot of breathlessness in Hot Mess), and the eventual message that friendship trumps everything will go down as smoothly as melting ice cream.

      Of course, there are still plenty of authors who go solo in their teen-troubles books, such as Denise Vega, whose recipe in Fact of Life #31 is entirely conventional but whose presentation of it isn’t. Katima Flynn divides her story into three trimesters, so obviously there’s going to be a lot in it about pregnancy, and that’s because Kat’s mom is a home-birth midwife, and Kat (as she is almost always called) knows a lot of the facts of life but is learning more all the time. Her mom is one of those hippy-dippy types, calling herself Abra (no last name) and objecting to the nickname Kat because “it feels blasphemous.” Kat has the usual problems of friendships and boys and home life, and the fact that she’s considered weird because she does yoga in the hallway doesn’t help. She’s got a major crush on Manny Cruz, who is finally showing interest in her, and some major conflicting feelings about gorgeous Libby Giles, whose life takes a turn that Kat never expects but that teen readers will see coming a mile away. The book is cliché-packed in terms of plot but very entertainingly told, thanks to the notes, journal entries and quotations sprinkled throughout and the various numbered “Facts of Life” that appear here and there. Oh – and it doesn’t really spoil anything to reveal that Fact of Life #31 is: “There are no facts of life.” That passes for depth here; but in fact Vega’s book is at its best when it focuses on the interpersonal relationships of the characters, not when it tries so hard to give their stories real meaning. There’s no there there.

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