Today is a momentous day, because today I begin my Reread of my all-time favorite YA series, the Jessica Darling series by Megan McCafferty. I can still vividly remember the day I picked up this book. The year was 2004 and I was a high school senior. I was in the library during one of my study halls, sitting at a table having finished my homework. I had nothing else to do so I started to look around the library, waiting for inspiration to strike. On the shelf next to me, the cover of one of the Monthly Highlight books stood out from the rest. It was lime green with orange, blue, and pink stripes. The cover showed the legs of a girl sitting on a couch, a magazine on her lap and phone cord extending from outside of the frame. I saw the title, Sloppy Firsts, and was immediately intrigued. “This could be another typical, superficial book for teenage girls,” I thought. I decided to give it a shot anyway and never looked back.
This is the book and the series I rave about to my friends. I loaned my copy to a few friends and they loved the series. It’s that good. The book reads like an actual teenage girl’s diary. Jessica’s observations are funny and heartfelt but she can also be shallow and kind of an asshole. She makes horrible decisions at times, not because she’s a horrible person but because she’s a teenager and has to learn things the hard way. Oftentimes YA books are awkward to read because adults who are too far removed from their teenage years to create a convincing voice. Throughout the series, Megan McCafferty gives Jessica a voice that is age-appropriate as the character goes through high school and college. Jessica is a self-proclaimed brainiac and her intelligence shows in her speech, but she’s no stranger to sarcasm, swearing, and the usual young adult patterns of speech. She is witty, self-deprecating, and laugh-out-loud funny.
There’s also Marcus Flutie, the fictional character I still harbor an immense crush on. He’s a recovered addict with a reputation for degeneracy who sees through Jessica’s put-together good-girl identity to the more complex, conflicted, and confused girl she only shares with her best friend Hope and her diary.
I found Jessica Darling inspiring when I was a teenager, and I hope I’ll still feel the same (I probably will). I’ll stop here before I talk about the whole book without Rereading it.
Teenhood Rating: 5 out of 5 Early 2000s Pop Music References
Sloppy Firsts tells the story of Jessica Darling’s life from January 1st, 2000, to January 1st, 2001, through journal entries and monthly letters written to her best friend, Hope. Jessica feels alone because Hope’s brother Heath’s overdose triggered the family’s move to Tennessee. Jessica is in a slump after Hope moves because she feels like no one else truly understands her. Jessica refers to the rest of her friend group (Sara the princess, Manda the self-proclaimed feminist with a reputation for being easy, and Bridget the beauty) as the “Clueless Crew” due to what she perceives as their obsession with only the most mundane and superficial things in life: boys, parties, and gossip. Jessica’s stress increases as she tries to live up to her parents’ expectations. Jessica feels like her mom connects more with Jessica’s pretty, popular, perfect older sister Bethany who is the complete antithesis to casual, brainy, athletic Jessica. Jessica is on the track team but feels immense pressure from her dad to be athletic. Her dad records all of her meets to replay every instance where she messed up, which Jessica feels is an attempt to make up for the loss of her older brother Matthew who died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at the age of two weeks.
Jessica starts to think she’s found a new Hope (heh) in the form of Hy, a transfer student who has to leave her private school in New York City after funding for her scholarship fell through. Hy is an exotic species in Jessica’s Jersey Shore high school, and she’s surprised to find that she and Hy have similarly unfavorable views of the rest of the student body. Hy soon ditches Jessica to hang out with the Clueless Crew, only to disappear during the summer. Why is she being such a flake?
At the same time, Jessica has her world turned upside down when Marcus Flutie, Heath’s “Dreg” friend, starts popping into her life at seemingly every turn. Fed up with her good-girl reputation, Jessica agrees to pee in a cup for him when he tells her he needs clean urine for a drug test. He begins to wave to her in the hall, passes her a note which she promptly loses, and he is just as quickly swept out of school and sent to rehab when it’s discovered that he used female urine for the drug test. Jessica is nervous he’ll rat her out, but he stays true to his promise that he won’t “narc on [her], Cuz.” She spends her summer discontent with her job and her horrible friends, Marcus never far from her mind.
In September, Marcus stuns Jessica when he appears back in school, sober and dressing in jackets and ties instead of his usual ironically-worn boyband t-shirts. They strike up a friendship, calling each other at midnight to talk, and Jessica soon finds herself even more infatuated with Marcus, all the while trying to convince herself otherwise. Marcus pushes Jessica to face the things that make her miserable so she can change her life. When she’s not obsessing over figuring Marcus out, Jessica feels guilty about her burgeoning feelings for him because of his drug-related connection to Hope’s brother. While Marcus didn’t force Heath to overdose, he was one of the people Heath frequently got high with and Jessica worries Hope will feel betrayed if she finds out about the friendship. Oh, and the note from Marcus that Jessica lost last year? Turns out her friend Bridget found it, and what it contains will change Jessica and Marcus’s relationship completely.
I still absolutely love this book despite a few problematic hiccups. First, this was written about high schoolers in 2000, and as a result, many pop culture references are dated. Jessica loves watching The Real World: Hawaii and Marcus wears Backstreet Boys t-shirts. References to Napster and Red Bull being new will cause today’s teens to either laugh or raise their eyebrows. They refer to people as “Wiggaz”, “hoochies”, “bimbos”, and “ho-bags”, among other colorful classifications. Another criticism I see about the books in other reviews is the Jessica slut-shames her friends. However, her attitude reflects how much Jessica doesn’t like her friends’ personalities rather than a statement on how she views sexuality as a whole. Jessica herself freely admits she’d like to lose her virginity; she just has ridiculously high standards. In addition, speaking as someone who was in high school in the early 2000s, slut-shaming wasn’t a widely held concept. We’ve made some progress in being more accepting and more aware of how we use words since then, and the book is a product of its time. And really, teenagers say shitty things about their friends. Believe me, I work with teenagers. However, I know some people will have an issue with this so I wanted to give fair warning.
What I really love about this book is Jessica isn’t only dealing with having a crush on an unconventional boy. She also deals with real, serious, non-romantic issues. She’s trying to figure out who she is beyond the identity she’s carved out for herself as the goody-goody overachiever. She deals with the pressure from her academics, parents, and friends. Without Hope, Jessica feels like The Only Sane One at school and at home. It’s hard enough being a teenager without feeling as if you’re totally alone as well. Jessica is far from perfect. She describes her insecurities about her zitty skin, small bust, her months-absent period, and failure to live up to people’s expectations. She is academically gifted, but she’s a spaz when it comes to dealing with her social life. She makes unfair assumptions about the people around her, which are often proven wrong.
Marcus isn’t the typical heartthrob you find in most YA literature. He has the bad boy thing going for him, that’s for sure, but he spends most of this novel proving how crappy he is. He reveals the main reason he did drugs was to ease his boredom with his everyday life. Most of his actions are attempts to amuse himself, often at the expense of others. His actions are sometimes shitty. People are props in his social experiments. He tells Jessica he’s turned straight-edge because he did so many drugs and had so much sex that the most extreme thing he could next was become a teetotaler. We see Marcus gradually begin to change his ways, but he still has a long way to go. (Believe me, my crush on him didn’t become full-fledged until the next novel, he has a ways to go.)
I love that Jessica and Marcus’s story isn’t wrapped up with a neat little bow in this book. It isn’t “boy-meets-girl BAM they’re together by chapter five and established for the rest of the series.” This book is truly the very beginning of their relationship and it takes a whole year to develop; even then, they haven’t even come far by the final page. They are good for each other, they are positive influences on each other, but they aren’t saviors for each other. I hate when couples in novels are lost without each other, when they depend on each other completely to be full human beings. That’s not life. No one is going to your magic fixer-upper; to suggest otherwise is a dangerous message to send out to young people. Jessica and Marcus help each other, but they’re imperfect teenagers and hurt each other as well. That makes their relationship more real and more special. They are two imperfect, broken people trying to make it out more or less intact. Isn’t that a universal struggle?
Adulthood Rating: 5 out of 5 origami-mouth poems
2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge Category: A Book Set in Your Home State