by REBECCA, February 2, 2012
Review of The Secret Circle trilogy by L.J. Smith
Cassie Blake: Sweet and shy, she moves to New Salem and is quickly involved in a . . . clique
Diana Meade: The beautiful “princess of purity,” she takes Cassie under her wing
Faye Chamberlain: Deliciously evil arch-nemesis of Diana (and also her cousin)
Adam Conant: Diana’s boyfriend, he returns to New Salem from a quest for powerful heirlooms
Laurel Quincey: Easy-going plant-lover, friend of Diana and Melanie’s
Melanie Glaser: Wicked smart and together computer expert, friend of Diana and Laurel’s
Deborah Armstrong: Terse biker, she has no patience for, well, anything (my fave character)
Suzan Whittier: Most often described in terms of her bosoms, she loves beauty (and sugar)
Chris & Doug Henderson: Endearingly vacant, music-obsessed twins who love a prank
Nick Armstrong: Deborah’s cousin, he’s like a character transplanted from The Outsiders
Sean Dulany: Skinny, little-brother type, he is most often overlooked by the others
Grandma Howard: Cassie’s grandmother, who knows everything that goes on around town
(I love these awesome New England names: Whittier, Conant, Armstrong, Chamberlain)
the new and embarrassingly gothtastic cover
When Cassie is forced to leave sunny California for the island of New Salem the summer before her junior year she thinks her biggest challenge will be to overcome her shyness and make new friends. Little does she know she will be caught up in something she doesn’t understand and end up fighting for her very life, bwah-hah-hah.
Okay, here’s the deal: Nearly everything about these books is delightful. The characters are awesome. The mystery is actually mysterious in some ways. The setting of New Salem is fucking delightful. I first read this trilogy when I was 12 or 13—actually, it’s the first time I ever stayed up reading all night because I just had to finish them!—and I wanted so desperately to be forced to move there.
The Secret Circle combines some of my all-time favorite plot/setting devices. To wit:
1. Starting a new school. This always necessitates:
a.) An evaluation of who the character is and who she wants to be, sometimes resulting in delicious tension when she decides to reinvent herself but some event causes her old traits to out.
b.) The anthropological assessment of the new school—you know, what clique does the mysterious soul in your math class belong to; who, exactly, eats at the tables by the windows during lunch; does the fact that the intimidating girl in your writing class can cause spontaneous combustion mean she’s part of local coven . . . you know, just the usual.
c.) The shaking up of the status quo. Every time a character arrives in a new social setting, she necessarily changes it; it’s like the observer effect. Naturally, some people welcome change while others resist it. This creates . . . drama!
2. A group of longtime companions who form (and reform) loyalties. When Cassie first arrives in New Salem, the kids from Crowhaven Road are roughly divided into two factions, which we could oversimplify as “good” and “evil.” More accurately, though, Diana, Melanie, and Laurel are interested in exploring magic carefully and generously, while Faye, Suzan, and Deborah are a bit more reckless and selfish in their interests. Adam is firmly on Diana’s side, while the Henderson twins are more issue-voters. Sean is swayed by fear, and Nick has no loyalties whatsoever. Of course, as Cassie gets more involved in the coven, the characters’ loyalties and motivations get much more complicated.
3. New England/old houses. Cassie moves from California, where nothing is more than 50 years old, to New Salem, which was incorporated in 1693. The problematic culture of New England family snobbiness is an undercurrent in the social world of the books, but the real stars are the awesome locations, from the gorgeous old houses to the crumbling graveyards. Here, Cassie sees New Salem for the first time:
“Cassie had expected it to be tiny, and her spirits lifted a little when she saw that it wasn’t. . . . There was a Dunkin’ Donuts and an International House of Pancakes with a banner proclaiming GRAND OPENING. In front of it there was someone dressed up like a giant pancake, dancing.
Cassie felt the knot in her stomach loosen. Any town with a dancing pancake couldn’t be all bad, could it?
But then her mother turned onto another road that rose and got lonelier and lonelier as the town fell behind. . . . they were old. Terrifyingly old, not just quaint or gracefully aged, but ancient. And although some were in good repair, others looked like they might fall over in a crash of splintering timbers any minute.
Please let it be that one, Cassie thought, fixing her eyes on a pretty yellow house with several towers and bay windows. But her mother drove by it without slowing. And by the next and the next.
And then there was only one house left, the last house on the bluff, and the car was heading toward it. Heartsick, Cassie stared at it as they approached. . . .
The front wing had been painted . . . once. Now what was left was peeling off in strips. The two chimneys looked crumbling and unstable, and the entire slate roof seemed to sag. . . . Cassie stared wordlessly. She had never seen a more depressing house in all her life” (The Initiation 43-4).
4. Many amazing and varied characters. So you’ve got your easy-to-like Diana, who adopts Cassie as her little sister, and your noble-and-handsome Adam. But where so many YA authors totally fail is in having their secondary characters remain generic or forgettable, and every character that isn’t easy-to-like become adversarial.
The relationships here go beyond mere friendship. Particularly in Cassie’s relationships with Diana and Faye, her feelings are dire. She is torn between a romantic friendship with Diana, whom she admires for her goodness, and an antagonistic one with Faye, who frightens her but whom she eventually warms to, along with Suzan and Deborah. Faye, Suzan, and Deborah are a delightful little group in their own right and a lesson to all YA authors who write friends that are clones of one another. Faye is overconfident, darkly sexy, and bossy, interested in boys and power; Suzan is superficial, self-absorbed, and flirty, but fun and funny, too; and Deborah is an intimidating, no-nonsense thrill-seeker who rides a motorcycle and doesn’t talk much. Yay! The characters are the best thing about The Secret Circle, and if you are someone who has watched the show then I can only apologize that you’ve had your time wasted and hand you these delightful characters as a balm to your wounded aesthetic.
The CW's Diana vs. Faye: I mean, how are we supposed to be able to tell who is good and who is evil if they're both brunettes, I ask you?
5. And, of course, covens. What I like most about the way magic is used in these books is that it is all about the elements—so, there are spells, sure, but also a use of plants, herbs, crystals, etc. Further, it suits the personality of who is using it. So if someone is feeling nasty and petty, they make nasty and petty magic; if someone is angry, they blast angry magic. It’s cool because for most of the trilogy they aren’t trying to do anything huge with the magic; it’s just the context for the drama. (Note: if you are one of the tv show unfortunates, you should know that there is nothing in the books about that whole linking the coven members’ magic together thing.) In this scene, for example, some of the ladies of the coven use a combination of magic and makeup to get ready for a school dance:
“‘Beauty bath mix,’ Laurel gloated, examining the assortment of bottles on the gilt shelves in Suzan’s bathroom. . . . ‘Now get in and scrub. Oh, this is good,’ she went on, sniffing at another bottle. ‘Chamomile hair rinse—it brightens hair, brings out the highlights. Use it!’ . . .
When she got back to the bedroom, Melanie directed her to sit down and hold a hot washcloth on her face. ‘It’s “a fragrant resin redolent with the mysterious virtues of tropical balms,”’ Melanie said, reading from a Book of Shadows. ‘It “renders the complexion clear and brilliant”—and it really does, too. So hold this on your face while I do her hair.’ . . .
The girl in the mirror, the one with the delicate bones and the swan’s neck, turned from side to side. The dress was silvery and shimmering like yards of starlight, and it made Cassie feel like a princess. . . .
‘Oh, thank you!’ Cassie said, whirling to look at the other girls. ‘I mean—I don’t know how to say thank you. I mean—I finally look like a witch!’” (The Captive, 80-85)
what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
Part supernatural mystery and part high-school drama, this trilogy is first and foremost about the basics: character + setting + story = success! In some ways, Smith is a very formulaic writer, in that she spins plot arcs with clear beginnings, middles, complications, and conclusions, but she’s extremely deft in weaving all the arcs together into one of the most memorable trilogies of my young reading life. Yes, I might be biased because I read it when I was so young; yes, it was published in 1992 so there are some things that seem a bit kitsch now that were probably meant seriously. But, overall, the series is super fun and has enough different kinds of characters that there will likely be someone for every reader to make friends with. The warm, magical atmosphere that made The Secret Circle books the perfect escape when I was 12 has yet to wear off!
Soon after reading these, I gave them to my sister (who had the good sense to love them, too). As a result, whenever my sister thought that I was being evil, sociopathic, or creepy (read: most of the time) she would call me Faye.
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (1997-2007). I know, I know, I can’t just compare anything magical to Harry Potter. Still, I read these books long before HP came out and I think their atmosphere has that similar just-before-winter-break-in-high-school feeling.
Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman (1995). Although this isn’t strictly YA, the combination of magic and social drama is equally irresistible.
procured from: a library book sale a hell of a long time ago