Ah, “secret diary” trope, how I love thee! It’s too fun when writers put their characters’ clandestine thoughts on blast. You probably remember it in “Harriet the Spy,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” or “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
This time, Anna Breslaw forces the titular character of her debut novel, Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here, to face the music.
Scarlett Epstein really does hate Melville, New Jersey, where she lives in a cramped apartment with her divorcee mother. Her one escape from Melville’s banality is the TV show “Lycanthrope High,” about high school werewolves.
Scarlett’s a BNF (big-name fan) in the show’s fan community, thanks to her popular fan fiction pieces (“fanfics”). When the network yanks “Lycanthrope High,” Scarlett and her fellow BNFs are crushed. Determined to preserve the fanverse, they decide to carry the torch with spin-off pieces.
Scarlett’s new fanfic is a roaring success – until she’s caught using her classmates as characters. Among the unlucky few are her longtime crush, Gideon Maclaine, and his babealicious new girlfriend, Ashley. Guess how well that goes over.
So! Laying out the relatable, comical plot arc is the easy part of this review. The hard part will be convincing some readers to pick the book up once they’ve read the following disclaimer:
Caveat emptor! “Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here” contains strong language, pot smoking, drug dealing, underage drinking, academic dishonesty, sensual content, and sex robots.
And yet, here I am, recommending it as one of the better books thus far in 2016. Why?
For starters, it’s the kind of sharp, witty writing I always applaud. Breslaw’s humor is biting, vicious, and laugh-into-the-page funny. She captures a teen’s superlative, emotionally high-strung voice, and the narrative mirrors that jumbled thought-process.
With Breslaw’s peppery voice, the book is a full-blast exposure to Scarlett’s mind. What’s better, we can clearly see that Scarlett’s perspective doesn’t always mirror reality. It’s up to the reader to sift through the scenes and determine what’s real and what’s biased. That’s a literary high-wire act best performed by Jane Austen in “Emma,” and Breslaw matches her almost step for step.
Take Scarlett’s withering assessment of “showing effort.” We’re treated to a prime example when she describes her best friend’s other friends:
“Ave is the only reason I can sit at the lunch table with the Girl Geniuses, a small clique of overachievers who run on Adderall and fear and have gears you can always see turning. No wonder they’re maladjusted; it’s uncomfortable seeing people try that hard, you know? Like, we don’t want to see your gears. Put them away.… Take the shivering mess of Jessicarose Fallon, for instance. This summer her parents sent her on a ‘volunteer’ trip to Argentina for a cool $5K so she could write a heart-wrenching college essay about how she ran out of Luna bars on day three.… If you were wondering, I have a shining 2.9 GPA out of ... I guess 4.0? Infinity? Whatever Jessicarose Fallon has.”
Now, contrast that snide superiority with this description of Gideon’s wealthy family, not three chapters later.
“I thought about how families like the Maclaines have big empty spaces between one another, while families like me and Dawn are smooshed on top of each other, hearing everything the other one’s doing, barely being able to breathe our own air. The Maclaines have the latest, sleekest cars and phones. Nothing’s ever an old model, something straining or squeaking or clicking, nothing about them ever invokes the ultimate embarrassing concept of trying. They have a beautiful silk curtain over the various awkward, rusty embarrassments of being human, and we don’t.”
Within a matter of pages, the idea of “showing effort” pivots abruptly from itchy maladjustment to a core quality of humanity itself. Scarlett mocks the Girl Geniuses for showing the hard work behind their success, while she lacerates the Maclaines for hiding their efforts behind a smooth facade.
Scarlett is supremely sure of both assessments, even though they’re contradictory, and that takes a heady blend of insecurity and overconfidence. She’s scared of being judged “less than,” resentful of people whom she perceives as “more than,” and deep in the paradox where “I know everything” meets “I know nothing.”
Much like a wounded animal flails in self-defense, Scarlett’s acid tongue lashes out at her suburban milieu. Meanwhile, we’re treated to the constant clickety-clack of her own mental gears churning furiously. She views her own life through a scriptwriter’s lens and with an editor’s skepticism.
She ruminates, “I wonder if I even know Gideon, or know anyone really. Is this the moment I’m supposed to realize Gideon’s actually a s***** person who just happens to have excellent taste in comedy? Or is this the moment I realize I’m too judgmental and living in my own weird cerebral universe and have unrealistic standards for boys, or just for life?”
“It’s been bothering me more and more that I can’t ever see anything objectively, that every observation I make is filtered through my personal lens whether I like it or not. I mean, all my favorite novels are like that. F. Scott Fitzgerald basically is Gatsby, so obviously it’s Gatsby’s book, and Daisy comes off like a flake. But maybe in Daisy’s unwritten book, Gatsby is a flashy, patronizing a****** who thinks he could win her with money and fancy stuff. And that might be an even better book.”
Essentially, Scarlett’s trying to find the exact configuration of thought and emotion wherein she feels safe, confident, and in control. Good luck, honey. That’s a lifelong struggle!
Throughout this pitch-perfect teen tale, Breslaw takes time to tackle classism, both conscious and subconscious. Recurring micro-aggressions between Scarlett and Ashley reflect the girls’ finesse in the subtle art of calumny.
“Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here” is a novel that people are talking about, and for good reason. It makes important points about poverty, bullying, and popularity. Breslaw also delivers penetrating insights into teens' lives, online and off.
Modern kids face the teeter-totter of “internet vs. real life” every day. Scarlett’s experience is exactly that, and a book like this forces us to talk about it. Plus, this offers teens a book that accurately reflects their world in form as well as function, while offering an outcome with real hope.