I guess your move wasn’t a sign of the Y2K teen angst apocalypse after all…
Jessica Darling has lost Hope, both literally and figuratively. The new year finds Jessica alone, depressed, and feeling less than optimistic about her current sophomore year. Her best friend, Hope Weaver, has just moved away from the New Jersey suburb the Darlings call home. Her remaining group of “friends” are busy with their boy drama and clothes fanaticism when they aren’t making a point to exclude her. Her mother is living vicariously through her bratty big sister’s wedding and her father only has one topic of conversation: track team. Jessica spends her days salivating over elusive Paul Parlipiano, bearing her soul in her journal, and trying to make sense of Marcus Flutie who provides a welcome distraction from all the dreckitude that surrounds her.
It seems like a large chunk of the YA genre these days is made up of sixteen year-olds in extraordinary circumstances. I get it–I too want to be transported to a postapocalyptic world where the triumph of the human spirit will end up demolishing evil. There is something to say, however, about identifying so completely with a protagonist that you feel a little less like a freak during those awkward years. After all, not all of us will face the problem of overthrowing a totalitarian government. But most of us will, at some point, feel the emotional earthquake of seeing a confidant go away. You might be wondering, “Ok, yes, we’ve all been there but how is this entertaining?” Trust me when I say it is if the existential crisis is voiced by a bright and funny girl who happens to have a way with words. Fine, don’t listen to me but pay attention to other YA aficionados whenever this book is mentioned. For years, I have heard squeals of glee every time the name “Jessica Darling” is uttered. I want to kick myself for having taken so long to pick up Megan McCafferty’s witty portrayal of the anguish-filled boredom that permeates most adolescents’s lives.
And anguish-filled boredom is what is being narrated, in large part, in this novel. There’s a plot–sort of–but for the most part we witness Jessica’s brutal first year without Hope. She makes and loses friends along the way. She fixates on one guy only to end up transfixed by Marcus Flutie, who can only be described as the guy that every girl has liked at one point in high school. She copes with the death of her best friend’s brother. She keeps her grades up, practices track, and is an all-around ideal kid though none of these things maker her happy. “I could probably talk my way out of a bizillion sticky situations–if I only got myself into them,” she thinks, at one point. Jessica however is stuck in a status quo that is making her miserable. She fantasizes over sex while lamenting her virginity. She rants against the Mean Girls hypocrisy she sees at school as she talks behind other people’s backs. She runs in the mornings wishing that an accident would make her stop.
My history teacher in high school used to say that she would never go back to being a teenager again. “You suffer over everything,” she would lecture us, while we rolled our eyes. “You feel bad if you have a boyfriend, you feel bad if you don’t. You feel bad if you have too many friends, you feel bad if you don’t. You feel bad if you’re wearing a skirt, you feel bad if you’re not.”
She had a point. Sloppy Firsts is all about exploring, expanding and bringing that point wide open.
Amidst what might seem like one trivial matter over another though, the underlying theme that pops up again and again is that of loss. Not only does Jessica have to deal with the immediate loss of Hope but she’s also mourning the Jessica that defined herself through Hope. As she picks up the pieces of her shattered identity, we see the character leaving behind the parts of her that no longer fit and taking on new ones that are more problematic but also more real. And isn’t that what we all do, when we grow up? We lose things to find ourselves again.