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Smart Girls Like Me by Diane Vadino

I first heard of Diane Vadino through her fashion blog, bunnyshop.org, which I had been introduced to, improbably, by one of my best friends, who can barely operate her Gmail account. This friend also told me that Vadino had a book, to which I responded, "Of course she does!" But Vadino has an interesting pedigree. She was the first person Dave Eggers hired at McSweeney's, a small but vigorous publishing establishment that puts out books, magazines like McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and The Believer, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. And when Dave Eggers tells someone, "You need to go write a book now," and then they do it, and then a free copy of it lands on your desk, you feel like you must read it, because it MUST be good.

I began writing this post a couple of days ago, when I was only fifteen pages or so into it, because even though I planned to read the entire thing for the purpose of respectability as a book reviewer, I felt I already knew everything I wanted to say about it. My planned post was an unrepentant pan. It pointed out the book's pathetic narrator, ridiculously sloppy prose, and highly irrelevant setting (New York City, pre-September 11, pre-dot com bubble burst, PRE-Y2K!!) as its main flaws, but the kicker, which I had yet to write, was that the book itself was a terrible cliche. Twenty-four-year-old single editorial assistant feeling insecure about her more beautiful best friend's upcoming wedding meets a guy who seems wonderful but probably isn't, shenanigans ensue, hearts are broken, quips are made, etc. That is the plot of 25% of all chick lit books out there, and that would be one thing if it actually was chick lit, but because this was Diane Vadino--remember how she worked at McSweeney's!!--there was all this hubub about how it wasn't really chick lit and what was the deal with the pink cover, anyway?

But as Betsy, the main character of Smart Girls, says near the end of the novel, "Maybe the problem is not living out the cliche, but living out a cliche that you think is stupid." And say what you want about the plots of chick lit novels, but honestly, this story is pretty dead center, even if it feels like it's been done before. Speaking as a twenty-four-year-old assistant living in New York City, this is kind of what our lives are like. We're poor, we're neurotic, we're lonely, and we have really cool friends who will call us assholes and psychos when that's what we're being.

What Vadino does that most other chick lit writers are unwilling to do is that she shows you a person, not a character. Betsy is a mess, emotionally, professionally, physically, intellectually. She lives almost entirely in her head, she doesn't wear a bra because she's too lazy and cheap to buy one, she falls in love with men before she even knows them, she half-sincerely thinks the end of the world is nigh and is stocking up on freeze dried foods for the occasion...the list goes on.

I disliked Betsy and her best friend, Bridget, for a long time before realizing a few things. Firstly, that I disliked Betsy because I am like Betsy, which isn't that the biggest cliche of all, and secondly that I disliked them at first because Vadino didn't spend any time trying to make them sympathetic. She literally drops the reader into this twenty-year friendship in medias res and attempts to hold our attention long enough to make us realize that most people are unlikeable when you meet them as their unvarnished, most mediocre selves.

There are some other things to consider, like the more time you spend with people, the more you love them. That's certainly true of this novel. It has its flaws, but I think that's what makes it charming, in the end. It's Betsy's story, so it, like everything else in her life, is messy and desperate and a little bit cliche, which is fine, because at the heart of this story is an unfaltering desire to get to the truth of what drives us forward and also what brings us back to our center.

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  1. Blogger chris | 5:48 PM |  

    You could easily do a whole post solely on pigeonholing book cover designs. Wait, have you? Either way, I'm reminded of it with this example. It's so maddening. I wish we went back to book that only had wax seals on the front. That would be killer.

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