A review of Sloppy Firsts (Jessica Darling #1) by Megan McCafferty
Broadway Books (Random House) 2001
by REBECCA, January 16, 2013
Jessica Darling: our protag whose bestie Hope just tragically abandoned her when her family moved away
Marcus Flutie: a guy at school who seems to see the Jessica Darling who isn’t so darling
Bridget: Jessica’s childhood bestie who turned boring
Manda & Sara: the other 2/3 of the “Clueless Crew” (with Bridget), they’re Jessica’s superficial default friends
Hy: a newcomer to Pineville from New York, Hy seems like she could be a real friend, until she becomes queen bee of the Clueless Crew
Scotty: one of Jessica’s oldest friends, he has a crush on her but she couldn’t care less
Jessica’s mom: sensitive basket case who seems to think Jessica should be a totally different person
Jessica’s dad: obsesses over Jessica’s running because he has no other way to connect with her
Paul Parlipiano: Jessica’s dream boy, he is a senior who she has never spoken to but worships completely
When your best friend—the only person in the whole world who understands you, the only person in the whole world that you can stand to be around—moves away, leaving you at the mercy of parents who don’t get you, faux-friends who you hate, a crush so massive and unrealistic that you have no control over it, and a strange boy who seems to see you in a way that only your best friend ever has, what the hell do you do? Well, you can’t do anything, obviously, except keep a journal for the rest of us to read and send desperate missives to your absent bestie.
Holy realism, Batman. I hadn’t realized how long it’d been since I’d read a good old-fashioned first person realist high school fiction, but Sloppy Firsts is absolutely that. So, I originally bought this book for my sister for Chanukah one year (it was one of eight books that I can no longer differentiate among, but they were all in this vein) and never read any of them. But then a few weeks ago I was visiting my parents and had finished the books I brought with me, so I ransacked the bookshelves that are now an orphanage of all the books that my family has left behind over the years, and I found Sloppy Firsts (such mixtures of liquid leftovers were called Jungle Juice in my day; no idea what the kids today are calling it).
I kind of feel like the Jessica Darling books are one of those series that everyone who loves YA lit has read except for me (although I’d never heard of it when I bought it for my sis, or I’d surely have read it before I gave it to her). So, I think it’s long overdue that I check out the series containing the mysterious loner guy that Forever Young Adult compares every mysterious loner guy to. However, I’ll admit that I didn’t expect to be particularly interested in Sloppy Firsts. It just it isn’t the kind of book that I usually gravitate toward; still, I enjoy one every now and again and, luckily for me, I was at my parents’ house and was therefore in the mood for it because at my parents’ house I am fifteen again.
Sloppy Firsts is written in the form of a daily play-by-play of Jessica Darling’s life, interspersed with the occasional letters and emails to her best friend, Hope. Jessica’s voice is really wonderful, and that was the strongest element of the book for me. It was truly a joy to get inside Jessica’s head: she’s funny and self-deprecating and harsh and embarrassing. Most of the fun (for me) of a narrative like this one is the small revelations that the characters have in the course of their daily lives:
‘Regardless of who you invite,’ Bethany said, breaking the silence, ‘You should be more concerned about the part in your hair than you are about wearing it up.’
‘What do you mean? My part is just fine,’ I said, immediately looking in the mirror for a confirmation. My hair was tucked back, curling just under my earlobes, with a silver barrette clipped to the right side of my head to keep my bangs from falling into my eyes. Same as always.
‘Well, sure, it looks fine in the mirror.’
‘And that’s fine because that’s what I look like.’
‘No it isn’t,’ she laughed.
Then she sprung the bit of big sister torture she’s probably been saving for years.’
I knew that numbers and letters were backward in the mirror, but I never thought the same principle could apply to faces. I never realized that what I see in the mirror is my reverse image. Bethany positioned me in from of a set of mirrors that bounced off each other in a way that let me see the reverse of my reverse image—which is what I really look like.
What a shock. Bethany was right. I do part my hair on the wrong side. . . . I always thought that I didn’t photograph well, but it turns out that’s how I appear to others. I tried holding my hand mirror up to the bathroom mirror so I can get ready for school with my real face in mind. There’s nothing I can do about my nostrils. But I’ve been trying to use styling goop, a paddle brush, and a hair-dryer to train my part to hang a left instead of a right, but it’s just not working. The part is already sixteen years in the making” (34).
There is interpersonal drama, sure, but as you’d expect, Sloppy Firsts is mostly friendships, crushes, fights, and self-discoveries. What sets it apart from so many of the other contemporary realistic YA novels that I’ve read is that Jessica’s main friendship takes place off-screen, so most of the portrayals of friendship that we get are of Jessica with the Clueless Crew, who are truly heinous in their intense and boring superficiality, and with Scotty, the cause of which I never did figure out, since he seems mostly to just play video games and be boring. And Jessica seems to think the same because he just kind of fades out of the book. In short, this is mostly a book about anti-friendships (Jessica is too apathetic about the Clueless Crew for me to even designate them as frenemies; plus, they don’t know that she hates them).
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
As such, I think one of Sloppy Firsts’ main intentions is to show the importance of a best friend/partner in crime. We never get to see Hope’s responses to Jessica, but we really don’t need to. It’s clear that they have that kind of enviable best friend relationship where they worship each other and their differences perfectly compliment one another. Really, the book is sort of a love letter to Hope, only in the negative. Throughout the course of the novel, Jessica grows more and more depressed and dissatisfied and lonely without Hope. That’s a dynamic that I think most of us can relate to. Moments of the description of their friendship are so right-on that it made me really miss all of you lovelies who live far away from me:
Exactly one year ago today, I sprinted the last 100 yards to win a cross-country meet against Eastland . . . I was feeling proud and happy. I rented Heathers at Blockbuster and was looking forward to what new insights/analysis we would come up with in our tenth VCR viewing. I got ready to make bowls of Chubby Hubby—mine topped with Cap’n Crunch, yours without—when you arrived for our Friday Night Food and Flick Fest. . . . You didn’t burst through the kitchen door cracking a joke about the Clueless Crew or doing a dead-on imitation of one of Christina Aguilera’s white-girl soul riffs or bearing a construction-paper-and-glitter gold medal that you’d insist I wear on my chest all evening. Your face was sad and serious in a way I hadn’t seen since Heath died. I knew something was wrong. Then you said it.
‘We’re moving to Tennessee.’
As horrible and impossible and all-other-ibles as the news was, I knew it was true. You put the ice cream back in the freezer so it wouldn’t melt, and I cried for hours.
Today I dug past layer upon layer of dinners and foil-covered leftovers in the freezer. I found that pint of Chubby Hubby covered in flowery frost, unopened, uneaten. And I cried all over again.
I still miss you.” (188)
As Jessica’s dissatisfaction with her life increases, she notices that the mysterious stoner at school, Marcus Flutie, seems to see her for who she is, unlike the Clueless Crew (and all her teachers)—that is, as “Notso” (as in “not so darling,” according to her father). Her burgeoning relationship with Marcus is the one thing that Jessica feels she can’t tell Hope, because Marcus did drugs with Hope’s brother, who overdosed (catalyzing her family’s move). Marcus is a solid character, but I must admit that I didn’t find him swoony the way a lot of other reviewers seem to. He just seems like an actually cool, smart person who doesn’t play games. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know they’re not thick on the ground in high school, but still. Most important, he makes Jessica face some hard truths about herself so that she can (hopefully) be a little more self-possessed in the next book (which I’ll definitely read).
Like I said, I wasn’t expecting to care for Sloppy Firsts much, but I ended up definitely enjoying it. I think my main causes for dissatisfaction with the book are things that are simply not to my taste. I was pretty uninterested in everything that happened in the book (except one thing, which I won’t spoil) because they seem detached and a bit arbitrary. In Sarah Dessen’s Just Listen (review HERE), for example, the narrative is concerned with the similarly everyday happenings of a high school girl. In Just Listen, though, all these happenings are tied together by overarching themes (music, the difference between appearance and depth, honesty, the fallout of an event we don’t know about, etc.), which make them seem completely necessary to the heart of the story. This is just taste, though; I imagine some people will really enjoy the journal-esque style of Sloppy Firsts.
I also didn’t care about Jessica much. I didn’t dislike her or anything, and at times I was definitely interested in her thoughts. But, while she’s clearly smart and observant, her particular brand of insight feels canned. It’s like she gives the smart version of banal observations: “Brides are evil. They are so hell-bent on looking better than everyone else that they pick out bridesmaids’ dresses that no one could possibly look good in” (31); “What always pissed me off about her whole perspective spiel was that she was writing off my feelings at that moment” (181). So, yeah, I wasn’t head over heels about her.
My main complaint is that McCafferty had the opportunity with Jessica to avoid common misogynistic and sexist tropes (since Jessica is, after all, supposed to be smart and considers herself separate from the Clueless Crew), but she absolutely doesn’t. There is a moment when Sara expresses relief over Jessica’s hopeless crush because “I’m just happy you’re not a lesbo” (156), and Jessica is affronted at the idea (“I mean, me? A vagitarian?”). Also, McCafferty attributes totally misogynistic thoughts to Jessica in what is, perhaps, the way that infuriates me most: the essentialization of “female” qualities and the collapse of being female with being overly sensitive in an intrinsically negative way. More than once. Which is a huge strike against the book for me. “I’m being such a girl right now. I have no right to be jealous” (142). “Then I could stop being such a girl and just move on already” (185). It’s bad enough when authors are sexist; it’s worse, in my opinion, when authors sneak misogyny into characters who are otherwise pretty righteous. By having Jessica, a smart, strong character, denigrate being “a girl” McCafferty teaches a whole new generation to equate “girl” with “over-sensitive,” “hyper-reactive,” “obsessive,” and “irrational.” Great. Thanks.
So, all in all, Sloppy Firsts was a well-written drama that I enjoyed, but wouldn’t stand behind in terms of its inherent politics. I’m intrigued enough by Jessica’s voice that I want to read the next one (and because Tessa liked it better), but it’s not the kind of thing I’d necessarily recommend to everyone. It’s a breezy, sincere portrait of the troubles of teendom, better written than many, but without any gravitas.
Oh, and for fans: Sloppy Firsts is, apparently, being adapted into a movie.
procured from: found at my parents’ house and stolen for the plane ride home
So, what did you think of the Jessica Darling series? Tell me in the comments!