Saturday, December 4

How to be Popular - Meg Cabot

When Steph Landry was in the sixth grade she made the mistake of accidentally spilling a red Super Big Gulp on Lauren Moffat's brand new white denim D&G skirt. Lauren's always been the most popular girl in school, and it was an insult she refused to forget, even though she and Steph had been friends, of a sort, at least. More significantly, she never let anyone else forget it either, coining the phrase "Don't pull a Steph Landry!" and sundry variations.
Five years on, Steph's had enough of being shunned, and she's really had enough of having her name be shorthand for stupid mistakes, klutziness and poor planning throughout Bloomville. In the last week of summer vacation, going through a box of her best friend Jason's cool grandmother's stuff, Steph found The Book. A guide to popularity that needs only a little fashion tweaking to bring it up to date (pedal pushers and white kid gloves aren't going to help matters), The Book will be Steph's guide for the year ahead, allowing her to finally become popular, attract the attentions of Mark Finley (the coolest guy in school, and not coincidentally Lauren's boyfriend), and stop everyone in the world using her name as a punchline.
There were a couple of above-average aspects of How to be Popular, including several sub-plots (predominantly revolving around the imminent marriage of Steph's grandfather and Jason's grandmother, but the campaign for popularity is firmly in centre stage), and the style, which intersperses chapters with extracts from The Book, setting the tone for the chapter ahead.
There are several interesting elements, including wedding sub-plot, the family contrasts, and the observatory. chapter thirteen, and there were two sections I really liked - the first is in the was when Steph contrasts movies about bullying (though that word is, I think, never actually used, subordinated in favour of "mean") with how things work in real life:
[senders of anonymous mail] always get away with it, and the victims just have to suck it up and go around wondering for the rest of their lives who could possibly hate them that much - always suspecting, but never knowing for sure.
The second is when Steph talks with Lauren's best friend, who's been punished for the sin of talking with Steph, and which sparks Steph's decision to stand up to Steph.
Although How to be Popular was a mildly entertaining read, I found it ultimately disappointing. Some of my disenchantment undoubtedly stems from my age, and some from my cultural background and very different secondary school experience - though there were groups in my (private, all-girl, lightly-religious) school, popularity wasn't ever a thing, particularly in the academic stream I was in, and based on the equivalent Australian novel, popularity isn't as key, sport isn't as decisive an arbiter of worth, and cliques aren't as rigid here as in the US.
Most of it, however, comes from the predictability of having seen this all before. Sadly, How to be Popular has no surprises. Steph learns that life's not as fun when she's becoming popular as it looks from the outside, that prioritising the popular crowd creates distance in her other relationships, that her male best friend is really something more, that the gorgeous guy she's longed for from afar is really a creep, and that the most important things are standing up for herself and being true to herself and her friends.
If this message is new to a reader it's no doubt valuable. If not, the rest of the novel doesn't really compensate. - Alex

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