A few weeks back New York Magazine, in their reportage on Fifty Shades of Grey, provided a handy flow-chart so you can find the sub-(or sub-sub-sub-)genre of Romance Novel that is right for you by answering questions about your story-specific preferences (Aliens? Mormons? Navy SEALs?) If you make your way to the last node on the chart you will be faced with that age-old question: how many cowboys?
I include the above link so you can play with the (way more fun) interactive version on the website, but also because this is the cover that I was faced with for the week:
Look at it! Clearly she is pondering “how many frizzy-haired, fuzzy mohair sweater-wearing Greg Brady clones???”
The Plot: Could the content live up to the expectations generated by that title and that cover? Well, we open with a ponderous prologue in which our first-person narrator, Susan, visits her little-old-lady neighbor Mrs. Pulaski and there is some very confusing business about a parakeet, and it is really unclear whether the “Mr. Pulsaki” that they both refer to is her husband or if that is the name of her parakeet. This does not get cleared up until a full ¾ of the way through the book. We learn that despite looking like Helen of Troy and Wakefield twins rolled into one, Susan doesn’t have many close friends except for her long-suffering cipher of a boyfriend, John. It is not clear whether John is Clone Blue or Clone Yellow.
Chapter one opens with Susan and her mother speaking to each other in acronyms: you see, they want to have a SASSS to combat their impending BASSS, because a SASSS would cancel out the BASSS. An eternity later she finally first-person narrates that a BASSS is a Boring And Sad Solitary Saturday and a SASSS is a Sheila And Susan Shopping Spree “something we do fantastically well together!” Are you following all of that? Because that’s one paragraph in and I glazed over a little.
Anyway, we next learn that the reason for all of this BASSS-related SASSSing is that Susan’s father has recently been promoted to third-shift foreman at Unspecified Factory in his constantly sleep-deprived state has little patience for anything, especially acronyms. How much is all of this SASSSing costing him anyway? “Don’t start, Bill,” the first S warns “Susan and I had a nice day and I won’t let you spoil it. And whether you think so or not, I think we deserve it!” GAAAAWD, why won’t he just admire “how soft and becoming my new sweater was…”
Ok, enough with the daddy issues and sweaters, now I can’t stop thinking about the Most Uncomfortable Scene in a Teen Movie Ever:
…where were we? Um, next Susan escapes to the local soda fountain where we learn that she doesn’t have many friends anymore because the other girls are all jealous of her flirting with their boyfriends. She runs into her best friend Terri’s boyfriend Tommy, and she uses some sort of advanced brainwashing technique on him: in 3 minutes flat that he admits that she’s “…very special. And very pretty. I like your hair. What color is it anyway?” I can’t tell if Tommy has been blinded or just color-blinded by her beauty. At any rate, he immediately breaks up with Terri because he wants to go out with Susan and we learn that this is a thing that keeps happening to her. It must be the jaunty beret.
The next day Susan is down one more girl friend when Terri tells her to screw off, but she quickly recovers when she goes to art class and learns that the teacher has selected the winner of the student-submitted themes for the school prom! And the idea is so stupid that two separate students independently thought of it! This year’s prom will be a “super idea- in fact it will be called SUPERBALL.” And it will always, always be written in ALL-CAPS, lest we forget its SUPERNESS! Of course Susan is one of the people who submitted the idea, but the other is a girl named Debbie Gilmore, who will be Susan’s co-chairman-woman-person. But who is this Debbie Gilmore character?
“I groaned inwardly. She was not my type at all- short; too heavy; thick, untidy eyebrows; do-nothing dark hair. I had noticed her once or twice before, I remembered. I had thought, at those times, that she wore the worst clothes possible for her figure (if you could call it that)… I did another groan-groan; obviously she was painfully shy as well as being painful to look at.”
And we finally get to the point: this isn’t going to be a book about parents divorcing or mean girls causing drama, it’s going to be about Giving The Fat Girl A Makeover. Yay:
“Starting today, you are not going to eat between meals. During the next month or maybe six weeks, you are going to lose at least ten pounds. You are going to have cheekbones!” You are! You are! No longer will your face rest on the back of your skull! “You are in my power now. You are going to do exactly what I say. You, Debbie Gilmore, are going to discover your best self! You might have to be sneaky about it. Pretend to eat. But, Debbie, spit it out, stuff it in your pockets, anything, just don’t swallow!”
At this point I was kind of hoping that it was going to turn into a book about a sociopath that gives another girl an eating disorder, but that is actually supposed to be motivational dieting advice. Yikes, 1980. But at least Susan is grateful! “Thank you, Debbie Gilmore, for giving my life a new purpose- something to do every day and on weekends. Thank you because now I have someone to talk to, laugh with. And she thought I was doing something for her. If she only knew!”
Well, Susan does have John, who finally puts in an appearance just as the reader was starting to think that he might have been a made-up boyfriend that she met at summer camp and who lives in Canada. He takes Susan to a party at his friends’ house with a bunch of sailors on shore leave. Which is exactly the kind of party I was never invited to in high school. One of the sailors wants Susan to dance on a table, but she says no. End (pointless) scene.
Susan gets Debbie to spend all of her birthday money on “beauty aids” including a home perm for “the second phase of The Great Gilmore Makeover.” Because Debbie has lost four of your earth-pounds and has her eyebrows forcibly plucked, she is now worthy of a boy’s notice: “For the first time in her life, Debbie was attracting attention. I loved it almost as much as she did. It’s a nice feeling to watch someone unfold like that.” Debbie grabs the first dude she can, the new kid in town named Michael, who has recently moved from The Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, where he was probably a yak herder or something.
Susan, of course, steals Michael away from Debbie, but Michael turns the tables on her by going to John and breaking up with him for her. Yeah, I’m not sure how that works either. Susan rushes to Debbie house where Debbie’s mother is so happy to see her because FOOD EMERGENCY! “Do you know what she is doing? She is making pudding- a double batch! I suspect that she plans to eat all by herself!” Susan wrestles the pudding away from Debbie and shames her into resuming her diet. Because four pounds is all that separates you from the whales, ladies. The unpopular whales.
Susan makes everyone forgive her by explaining that it isn’t her fault that she can’t stop breaking up her friends’ relationships, it because her father doesn’t love her enough! But it’s totally okay because he’s getting a new job! Debbie goes to the SUPERBALL with Michael, because you totally want to date a guy who dumped you for your best friend five minutes ago. Terri and Tommy also get back together, because if you date a boy in the 7th grade you better hold on to him forever or you will surely die alone and be partially eaten by your 300 cats before anyone thinks to look for your body. Susan and John get back together in time for the dance too, because… well, because he is totally not an imaginary boy from Canada.
Terri, can you and Tommy provide a moral to this story? “My Dad says that Tommy and I are like peanut butter and jelly. I think I’m the peanut butter. Some of the ideas seem to stick to the roof of my mouth.”
Yeah, I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean either. Just remember, ladies: without a man, you are a mummified corpse in a crawlspace just waiting to happen!
Sign It Was Written in 1980 Department: When Susan and Debbie list superheroes that people can dress as for the SUPERBALL they include Spider-Man, Captain America and The Six Million Dollar Man.
Terrible Name for a Restaurant Department: Bun ‘n Burger
Ladies and Gentlemen, We Have a Title! Department: When Susan and Debbie are having a very important meeting at the local soda fountain about the SUPERBALL, one of Susan’s ex-friends cattily suggests that if she needs any ideas for a costume she could “go as… Superflirt.” Also: The “Ooo, Burn!” Department.