Beverly Cleary has always been one of my favorite authors. I think I read every book she wrote, and while I liked the Ramona books just fine (I was, after all, an older sister who had acres of sympathy for Beezus), I loved Cleary’s teen books. Fifteen was one of my favorites, but my absolute mushy love is reserved for The Luckiest Girl.
From a romance perspective, this book is a perfect construction of romance tropes and expectations. There’s the plucky, pretty, enthusiastic and sensitive heroine, Shelley, who is invited on what seems like a whim to live with her mother’s college friend in southern California, a place that seems like another planet to Shelley, who grew up in Oregon. Shelley is almost too perfect, except that because the story takes place from her point of view, the reader is well aware of Shelley’s flaws, though the are correctable and forgivable.
There’s men, too. There’s the hot, handsome, socially shy and very desirable basketball player, Phillip, complete with letterman’s sweater and a coterie of admirers. There’s Phillip’s best friend, the delightfully named Frisbie. And there’s Hartley, a boy who easily and instantly becomes Shelley’s friend, someone whom she can easily talk to whose company she really enjoys.
When Shelley arrives in San Sebastian, California, everything is different, from the rambling, odd house to the rambling bickering loving family with 7 towel racks on the wall, to the grove of orange trees in the yard. Shelley is eager for her adventure in California, and even though she’s scared of being the new girl, eventually, her year of high school in San Sebastian becomes magical: she’s well-liked, she has new ideas for routine projects like fundraisers, and she catches the attention of the most popular boy in school, Phillip. But when Phillip works up the nerve to ask her out, their first date is awkward and full of activities created by what’s expected of them – they play ping pong at someone’s suggestion, they go to the soda shop because that’s what people do on dates. And Shelley gamely does her best, without questioning whether it makes her happy, because, hello, she’s on a date with the most sought-after boy in school, the one whose smile makes her catch her breath, the one who is so unbelievably handsome she can’t look at him in biology glass lest she start daydreaming about their next possible date. Shelley has it bad and she should be happy, so she convinces herself that she is happy.
But after her distraction and her blithe acceptance of what’s expected of her yields some consequences that could jeopardize her future goal of going to college, Shelley has to reevaluate what’s important, and who is in charge of her life.
In that turning point of the plot, Shelley begins to recognize who she is, what she likes and what she wants. For example, she wants to go to college. She wants to study botany. She wants to learn more about plants, and do crossword puzzles and learn about things that make her curious. And she has to admit her own mistakes and her own responsibility in order to make those goals possible.
Many characters describe Shelley as perpetually having an expression on her face as if something exciting is about to happen. I remember reading YA novels as a teenager looking for someone to identify with, someone to learn from, and while the Wakefield twins didn’t do it for me at all, what with the Id and the Super Ego battling it out in blonde formation, Shelley gave me a lot to admire. She had joy, and excitement, and in having fun and making the best of every day, she learned who she was, and what she valued, and who she loved. Hers is a story of autonomy and strength, told in a wonderfully innocent narrative and voice, and even though the book is 50 years old, it still spoke to me just as much as it did when I read it at 14. It taught me so much about what I wanted in a relationship, and I didn’t realize how much I’d absorbed from the story until I read it again this past week.
But this is absolutely and always a YA novel about first love, and it was published in 1958 (I totally had to Google what a “dirndl” was). Do not expect nookie, is all I am saying. Not even close. But oh, the tension and the wonderful story. Yet again I embarrassed myself by crying in public when I read the ending, which is bittersweet and stings with the poignancy. I choose to believe in happiness and ever after, myself.
This is one of the YA novels that I forget about and then remember in pieces until I recall the title and go reread. It’s also one with the kind of tension and slow but steady heroine development that ultimately hooked me on romance. Even now I want to email Ms. Cleary and ask what happened to Shelley, in her imagination or discarded scenes, even though it’s none of my business.
What I love best about this book is that nothing dire is happening. No one’s a werewolf. No one is two short apocalypses away from vampirism and a zombie invasion. Things happen that are important to the characters, but nothing is life threatening, except for the emotional experience of growing up and going through high school. The actions they take in high school do have an effect on the rest of their lives, and that’s a lot to absorb when the immediate drama seems so much more important than the long-term goals of maybe college, maybe jobs, maybe the future is happening sooner than they think. This book is very sweet and simple and smart, almost an old skool YA novel, come to think of it.
Cleary books are treasures, and this one is no different. It’s certainly a treasured memory for me.