This is a Young Adult novel, which is not a genre I typically read. It’s probably unfair of me, but I have a stereotype in my mind of what a YA novel is, and generally speaking, they aren’t something that interests me. But this one was recommended by the great Carrie Rubin, and so I gave it a try. And I was pleasantly surprised, because whatever expectations I–rightly or wrongly–have of YA novels, this one easily surpassed them.
Part of it, perhaps, is that I have this idea in my mind of YA books being narrated in a snarky, sarcastic tone. There’s none of that in Calmer Girls–our protagonist, 16 year-old Samantha Cross, is sincere and good-hearted. All her emotions seem genuine, whether in her frequent feuds with her older sister Veronica, her love for the handsome Ben Swift, or her misery at her parents’ recent divorce and her mother’s worsening alcoholism.
A word about the divorce: one thing I liked about this book was its sensitive portrayal of how badly divorce affects the children of the split couple. The constant tension and psychological trauma it inflicts on both Samantha and Veronica is a powerful illustration of the painful consequences.
The main plot of the book is Samantha and Veronica vying for Ben’s affection. Veronica is a gregarious, extroverted young woman, used to attracting the attention of any boy she wants, and is distraught when Ben prefers her shy, younger, bookish sister.
But while he at first seems to be an ideal boyfriend, Ben is tormented by emotional scars left by his own parents. Ben and Samantha soon find themselves retreating into their love for one another, in a sweet–if decidedly not rational or mature–way, characteristic of young people leaving childhood behind, but not yet truly adults.
The prose is rich and evocative. The book reminded me of Mark Paxson’s The Irrepairable Past. That might seem like an unlikely comparison, since that novella is the story of an older man reflecting on his past, and Calmer Girls is the story of a young girl just starting out, but both books evoke a rich feeling of the melancholic beauty found in everyday life.
A running theme in the book is Samantha reading Brontë novels, and many of the chapters begin with quotes from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. There’s also one scene in particular where Samantha draws a comparison to the former. I liked this a lot–it was a nice touch, without ever feeling forced or overused.
Perry did such a good job recreating what the world feels like to a teenager, it actually made me reflect back on my own teenage years. I suspect anyone reading the book will recognize a little of their own past in it. Personally, it made me think back with both nostalgia and regret to those long summer days when, having no actual responsibilities or obligations, I could nevertheless set myself to worrying obsessively about ephemeral things like whether my crushes even knew I existed. Ah, how the youthful brain makes trouble even where none exists!
The story is set in 1993, and is tinged throughout with period pop culture references, that only add to the book’s nostalgia value. Which brings to me to another point: the slang in this book is very different than what I’m used to. I’m not sure how much of this is the time period, and how much is the setting–Newfoundland, Canada–but either way, it was quite interesting. Samantha, Veronica, and their friends use a number of novel expressions which I had not seen before, which made the story that much more vibrant and authentic.
I ended up enjoying Calmer Girls far more than I expected. Don’t let any preconceived notions about YA fiction fool you–this is a fantastic read for anyone who enjoys solid literary fiction.