You know how there are some books and some characters you just fall in love with immediately? And you want to re-read those books and stay connected to those characters as long as possible?
That is me with Megan McCafferty’s Jessica Darling series. I’m not sure what I want more: to be Jessica Darling’s best friend or Megan McCafferty’s best friend. I think I’ll settle for Megan McCafferty, because she’s, you know, real.
We’re going to start with Sloppy Firsts, because it is the first of the five-book series.
We meet sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling, the younger daughter of two parents who seem to continually disappoint her and us. Her mother, the only real caricature in the book, is obsessed with planning the wedding of Jessica’s older sister, Bethany, to a guy called G-Money. Jessica, meanwhile, is forced to navigate her junior year of high school without her best friend, Hope, who has moved from Pineville, New Jersey, with her parents shortly after the death of Hope’s older brother. Jessica soon becomes acquainted with Marcus Flutie, a friend of Hope’s brother, and engages in a push and pull attraction to him. She likes him, she doesn’t like him. She wants him, she is appalled by him. Marcus, you see, is Bad News, or at least he appears to be. He might or might not have engaged in some chemical extracurricular activities with Hope’s brother, which might or might not have played a part in the brother’s death, which might or might not cause some awkwardness with Hope.
Told in a journal form, Sloppy Firsts takes us along for Jessica’s voyage from “lost without my best friend” to “oh, wow, I might have friends after all.” She desperately wants to maintain her 99.66 GPA, form a relationship with Paul Parlipiano, and reclaim her period, which has gone MIA. And she wants Hope back, because Hope, Jessica believes, is the only person who understands her.
Then there is Marcus Flutie.
Oh, people. I think we all probably knew a Marcus Flutie in our time, and here we are confronted with him again. Marcus, aka Krispy Kreme, is every parent’s worst nightmare, which makes him catnip for high school girls. Jessica crosses paths with him in the school office, and the two begin a relationship of sorts. Jessica is drawn to Marcus, but she can’t figure out why. She wants Paul Parlipiano; she has wanted Paul Parlipiano for years. So why does she want Marcus Flutie so much? Why does she agree to help him fake a drug test? It’s one thing for him to be everything Jessica isn’t, but it’s another thing entirely for him to hold any fault whatsoever in Hope’s brother’s overdose.
“I was feeling so optimistic that I made a vow to myself then and there: I will be normal. I will accept that Hope is gone. I will not be afraid of being friends with Hy. I will face up to the fact that Paul Parlipiano will not devirginize me. I will stop thinking that Marcus Flutie is trying to corrupt me. I will be normal.”
This book is so good. As a high school teacher, I can tell you that it is as realistic a depiction of high school life as you’re going to find. Kids struggle to fit in, and Jessica sure does once Hope leaves. They also struggle with their virginity and what it means to be a virgin today. They want to be successful and go to their college of choice, and they want their parents to appreciate them. As much as Jessica’s mother drives her nuts, she does want a relationship with her. Her father’s affectionate nickname for her, “Notso” (as in “Not so Darling”) is sweet and dorky, as most fathers are.
Jessica herself is as flawed as they come, which is why I love her so much. She makes mistakes. Oy, does she make mistakes. There are times you will want to read this as you would watch a horror movie: your hands over your eyes, peeking between your fingers. I actually found myself occasionally saying out loud, “Oh, girl, no.” But that’s what makes her so real. Unlike for many YA heroines, nothing comes easily for Jessica Darling. She continually has to learn from her mistakes, and she continually screws up. You will cheer her on and want her to figure things out. You will want her to be happy.
If you want to take a trip down memory lane and revisit the high school experience, please read Sloppy Firsts. It is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Published by Broadway and available on Amazon.com.