Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I Read It So You Don't Have To: The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell

When I'm wrong (which occurs more frequently than I'd like to admit), I'm wrong.  Sometimes I'm really wrong about things that seem, at first glance, transparent. 

Last November I speculated on the vapid, fluffy content and great teen book disservice that was about to be done by author Candace Bushnell with her Sex and the City prequel: The Carrie Diaries.  Well, now I've read it.  I'm almost embarrassed to admit it.  I should probably just sweep this confession into a dark corner, but I won't. Don't give me that look.  I didn't move straight from Palahniuk to Bushnell.  It's just that Bleak House is kind of tedious... I needed a late night palette cleanser.  Oh, shut up.  I don't have to defend myself because what I'm trying to say is: I was wrong.  I was really wrong.  About everything.  Now I have to own up to the fact that as high school-centric young adult books go, The Carrie Diaries is alarmingly smart and frankly, a welcomed breath of fresh air.

I'm a quasi-adult who reads more young adult fiction than I should.  It's fun, quick, easy, literary candy directed at kids with limited attention spans and filled with snark and cliques and strangely filtered variations on adult situations.  Most of the time, though, when it's aimed at the female population, it's also brainless dreck.  There are, of course, exceptions to the rule (Andromeda Klein, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist), but, disappointingly, these days it seems that girl-centric teen lit is split one of two ways.  It's either supernatural (Twilight, Shiver, Beautiful Creatures, You're So Undead to Me, etc) or rooted in a label-dropping popularity contest (Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, Private).  Both directions are often fueled by massive crushes and usually have as their protagonists the slightly 'different' girl who must find her way in the locker side battles of the wits.  Obviously, Sex and the City doesn't have much to do with the supernatural (not counting the outrageous credit card bills the ladies must surely receive each month), and it's admittedly a story very close to the latter.  The difference, though, is Carrie Bradshaw herself.  One would expect that Carrie Bradshaw's teen years would be loaded with shoe obsessions, casual trysts, and bad puns.  Well, not quite.

There's nothing new about The Carrie Diaries at first glance.  The plot is filled with familiar strains that anyone who's seen Mean Girls will recognize.  The primary difference is that Bushnell doesn't bother updating the language for 2010 mini-fashionistas, and thus creates something that feels almost pure.  This is Carrie Bradshaw circa 1980, living in a small town, battling lofty romantic tendencies, and figuring out how to deal. As she enters her senior year of high school, this Carrie has yet to have a boyfriend and is slowly realizing that she's one of the last remaining virgins amongst her "anti-clique" clique.  She's recently been rejected from the New School's summer writing program, is still coping with the headstrong rebellion of her younger sister in the aftermath of their mother's death and her father's spotty parenting, and trying to separate planning for her future from the personal dramas of her slowly separating, but likable, friends.  As the school year begins, she meets the new kid at school: slick-talking Sebastian Kydd, who takes a shine to her and who she winds up inadvertently snatching from the school's queen bee.  As she begins seeing Sebastian, Carrie gets sidetracked and begins to realize that paranoia and focus on her first real high school relationship are getting in the way of the rest of her life. 

Quite simply, at its core, the book is a tale of girl meets boy, girl gets boy, bad things happen.  Yet, what saves The Carrie Diaries from falling into an eye-rolling pit of self-despair is that this Carrie is a believable early model of the independent woman she becomes.  She's got a reputation for being outspoken, is loyal and decent to her friends, and bears the seeds of budding, yet still confused, feminism planted by her mother.  Bushnell doesn't cater to young readers who might not get the pop cultural references or are on a hunt for Manolos.  This Carrie is a product of her times.  She's an unspoiled girl who spits out notions picked up from the feminist authors she admires, telling family members "most forms of sexual intercourse can be classified as rape… I don't plan to get married, it's a legalized form of prostitution" or offering up surprisingly wise observations on the social hierarchy of her high school.  Bushnell writes Carrie as witty, engaging, and clever.  She's a down to Earth girl who, even with a penchant for cigarettes and underage drinking, feels like a fully formed study of what many voracious teen girl readers would want in a best friend.

Carrie, and the novel, won me over.  At a time when so many young adult literary heroines are defined by their male love interests and resort to conniving schemes to climb the social ladder, Carrie Bradshaw's struggles feel real.  She's not the made-over freak or geek, nor is she some stereotypical cheerleader looking down from atop her pyramid.  She's just someone in between.  A girl who says she wants to be a writer, but keeps her writing hidden away.  A girl who is there when her friends need her to be and who reflects on her own actions with some regularity.  She's caught between staying true to personal philosophies her own friends don't seem to understand (however unpopular her opinions might be), and succumbing to the easy route: being the girls she despises.  All of that, to me, gives the book an edge over the sugary, boy-crazy teen titles that are dropped with repeat regularity.  Sure it has its flaws, and I'm not saying it's some huge feminist triumph.  But, as a guilty pleasure and quick distraction, The Carrie Diaries is, somewhat amazingly, pretty worthwhile.  It's an honest coming of age story with an appropriately conflicted narrator.  Say what you will about what Carrie grows up to be (I'm looking at you, mothers), but as fictional role models go, Carrie Bradshaw takes Bella Swann any way you slice it.  

Now back to Bleak House...       

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