Book Review

The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary

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Title: The Luckiest Girl
Author: Beverly Cleary
Publication Info: HarperCollins 1958
ISBN: 9780380728060
Genre: Young Adult

Book CoverBeverly 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.


The Luckiest Girl is available from Amazon, Kindle, BN.com, Nook, Book Depository, and Powell’s.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Aziza says:

    Happy Birthday to Beverly Cleary, who is 95 today (April 12).

    Two years ago, I picked up her second autobiography, My Own Two Feet, while I was helping someone verify some information. I wound up reading the entire book, which covered her teen years into her professional life. As I read about her mother trying to push a girly raincoat onto yellow-slicker-wantin’ high school student Beverly, I thought: hey, I’ve read a story like this. Well, no kidding—Beverly Cleary wrote it.

    To be honest, I didn’t remember much else about the book, which I read for the first time in the 1980s. (The teen boy who had an afternoon job driving a meat-delivery truck? Check. That was Fifteen, though, wasn’t it?) I re-read The Luckiest Girl and enjoyed the heck out of it.

    Now that I think about it, maybe the raincoat story was in her first autobiography, A Girl From Yamhill. I believe that one also tells the tale of Beverly’s boyfriend, the excruciating Gerhardt.

  2. 2
    Jayne says:

    Oh man, I checked this book out from my middle-school library at LEAST 20 times. I loved all of the Cleary YA fiction, like Fifteen (which was indeed the one with the teen boy who drove the delivery truck), Jean and Johnny, and Sister of the Bride, but this was my favorite. I still remember Shelly’s pink raincoat with the velveteen button on the top.

    Thank you! I am totally feeling the warm and fuzzy this morning, now. These are some books that I would prefer to have in paper format, so I think I’m either going to have to check them out from the library or troll a used bookstore for copies. Somehow, digital or new books don’t quite feel right for Ms. Cleary.

  3. 3
    Sarah W says:

    Was Fifteen also the one where the MC brings a huge flower arrangement to the boy she likes?  To this day, I remember that gladiola(s) are supposed to be a “masculine flower.”

    I love these books so, so much . . .

  4. 4
    Emily says:

    I actually prefer young adult novels (set in high school) where people don’t necessarily have sex or get married. I think its more realistic and believavble (particularly on the marriage thing). I don’t buy kids getting married today and staying together. Or even 50 years ago.  I know that occasionally its possible two people stay together but that is not likely. Its better not to put pressure on high school kids to get married. One of my aunts did that and now her child is divorced.

    Happy Birthday Beverly Cleary! I really like the books I read of yours but I never read this one.
    My favorite is Emily’ s Runaway Imagination.

  5. 5
    LizW65 says:

    Huh—I had no idea that Beverly Cleary wrote YA.  These sound interesting—I may have to check them out.  I recall enjoying the teen books of Rosamund Du Jardin, another late Forties/early Fifties author, when I was a kid, and these sound as though they could be similar.

  6. 6

    Liz, I was also a huge Rosamund Du Jardin fan (loved Toby and Brose, Pam & Penny!) when I was growing up in the 70s/80s (my library had the series), and Lenora Mattingly Weber as well (the Beany Malone and Katie Rose books). There is a company called IMAGE CASCADE that reissues all those 40s/50s YA romances. I used to buy the books from dealers at a steep price for my collection, but now I own them all in reissue.

  7. 7
    Amanda says:

    I loved this book!  In 7th and 8th grades I checked it out of our tiny school library at least a half-dozen times.  I pretty much went down the shelf, reading each Cleary book, then going back to the beginning.

    What I remember most was the yellow slicker and how she wanted one so badly so that she could have her friends write messages on it like the other kids had.  Then she moved to a new town where that wasn’t the thing to do and she was glad her mother insisted on buying her a nice one.

    That was such a comfort to me as my own mother never agreed to buy me the cool stuff the other kids wore.  That was the beginning of my understanding of stylish vs. trendy, which has served me well through high school and into adulthood.

    There are plenty of celebrities I’d be nervous to meet, but if I came face to face with Beverly Cleary, I just might faint from the excitement.

  8. 8
    hechicera says:

    Available on Kindle (as is Fifteen) for $5.99! Done, and done!

    property37: Way more than 37 books have become property of my Kindle since I started reading SBTB.

  9. 9
    Hannah says:

    I must have read The Luckiest Girl. Though I have no memory of the book I’m sure I owned this version with the gold locket on the cover:

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-media/product-gallery/B00188V7TG/ref=cm_ciu_pdp_images_2?ie=UTF8&index=2

  10. 10
    Mary Beth says:

    Beverly Cleary’s books are wonderful. This is the book I remember as the doughnut hole book. Shelley’s at a school meeting where the kids are trying to raise money for something and she suggests selling doughnut holes. Everyone thinks it’s a big joke, how can you sell something that’s not there? But Shelley explains and then it’s a successful event. Isn’t it funny what sticks with you about a book after 30 years?

  11. 11
    Laurel says:

    I loved this book, too! I remember the yellow slicker drama and that Philip’s nose had a sunburn-y place on it.

    The thing that I took away from the book at the time I read it was that Shelley remade herself after she had a chance in new environment. All the expectations of high school changed with her geography and she found herself having to evaluate with a fresh perspective. She also had the opportunity to be evaluated from a fresh perspective. She went from someone who wants to meet expectations to someone who wants to set them.

  12. 12
    Abby says:

    I just adored that book, and I think it was the first time I ever read about going somewhere different to start a new life.  I read it at least a dozen times, and I know it helped me look forward to new adventures rather than being afraid of change.  I loved Shelley and I wanted to be like her, and so she inspired me to try new things like studying abroad.

    Oh, for a pink raincoat with velveteen buttons!

  13. 13
    Eliza Evans says:

    Oh! I read this one! I completely forgot about it until you wrote about the details—the orange trees, the seven towel racks. 

    I always really loved Beverly Cleary’s books.  I think I need to read this again with adult eyes.

  14. 14

    Thank you so much for this wonderful review, and for reminding of how much I love Beverly Cleary’s YA books.  Her writing is really remarkable – so spare and yet so evocative of emotion.  She perfectly captures those wonderful/terrible moments when adolescent fantasy meets adolescent reality, and how we define ourselves by our response to that crisis.  I especially love Jean and Johnny for that, because the heroine tries so hard to force reality to conform to her fantasy.  The moment she realizes what she’s been doing is wonderful – like the moment when Shelley in The Luckiest Girl realizes who she really loves or when Jane in Fifteen realizes she’s been trying to act like a popular girl she doesn’t even like.  The cathartic release in those moments is exquisite – a visceral experience of shedding expectations, whether our own or other peoples’.  Part of the teenage struggle is figuring out what it means to be a human being, and I loved reading Beverly Cleary as a teen because she could capture that watershed moment when you realize that “being yourself” isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, but involves conscious choices made every day – not to mention courage.  Thanks again for this review!

  15. 15
    hollygee says:

    I remember the whole family working together burning smudge pots and using fans going to keep the orchard from freezing.

  16. 16
    Vicki says:

    Wow, I read this book in primary school here in Australia, many many years ago, and still think about it from time to time.  Mine had the same cover that Hannah linked to.  I don’t have such vivid memories of Fifteen for some reason.  I too remember the velveteen trimmed raincoat and doughnut holes, and I remember her getting tricked into eating an olive straight off the tree.  I like the fact that unlike many of today’s YA novels, it wasn’t all tru wuv 4 eva.  When Hartley(?) tells her at the end that he loves her, I loved that she realised that it wasn’t the “love for keeps that comes later” or something along those lines.  I really don’t understand this wanting to get married right out of childhood business, but that’s just me.

  17. 17
    Christine says:

    Wow, if I had a nickel for every time I had read this book as a young girl. It was second only to “Fifteen” and right ahead of “Sister Of The Bride” on my list of favorites. I loved Shelley’s temper tantrum of putting roses in the garbage disposal after not getting the yellow slicker! I also loved the whole subplot with the young daughter of the family she was staying with and her “frenemy” in school that she described as “smooth.”

    Beverly Cleary is a treasure!

  18. 18
    Alyssa Cole says:

    I re-read Fifteen so many times as a kid, but never got around to this. Friday is payday, so I’ll be adding some Beverly Cleary books to my collection.

  19. 19
    Kati says:

    Fifteen was my very first romance, the one that made me think, “Man, I love the HEA!” I was 11. I moved on from Beverly Cleary to Nora Roberts, but I have such warm and fuzzy memories of Fifteen. I can’t believe that she’s 95 today. Happy Birthday, Ms. Cleary!

    Thanks for this lovely, nostalgic walk down memory lane, Sarah!

  20. 20
    Alpha Lyra says:

    I adore Beverly Cleary, but somehow I never found this book. I must have it! Off to Amazon.

  21. 21
    Reina says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this book! I need to reread it. Cleary is one of my favorite authors. I also love love love Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy (and Tib) high school series. (I’m a series junkie). Lovelace started with children’s then told the story of the 3 friends through high school and beyond—set in early 1900s Minnesota with all the high school drama you could want. Starts with Heaven to Betsy…love those old skool YAs. :)

  22. 22
    LisaM says:

    Thanks for the reminder – and Happy Birthday to Beverly Cleary.  I live in the Portland, OR area and have been to Klickitat Street and some of the other places she writes about in her Ramona books (which I’m more familiar with than I am her YA). 

    @Reina – thanks for the reminder on the Betsy books, I love those too!

  23. 23
    SB Sarah says:

    Part of the teenage struggle is figuring out what it means to be a human being, and I loved reading Beverly Cleary as a teen because she could capture that watershed moment when you realize that “being yourself” isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, but involves conscious choices made every day – not to mention courage.

    YES! So true. That’s one of the things I absolutely love about this and the other Cleary books: the idea that each character realizes she is awesome exactly as she is. It’s not a message that gets old, no matter how old I am.

  24. 24

    I think I might have tried the Cleary YAs a bit too young – I just remember finding them so disappointingly wan in comparison to the gleeful childish anarchy of Beezus and Ramona or Otis Spofford. Now I think I’ll have to give them another chance.

    And the pink raincoat! My college roommate used to wax rhapsodic about that coat (she even had a pink raincoat, and she said it had everything to do with this book), and I can see now she wasn’t the only young reader on whom it left a lasting impression :)

  25. 25
    shelley says:

    Hey, my name! It’s not that popular. How have I not read this book? Only read Ramona, somehow never got to Cleary’s YA.

  26. 26
    Melanie says:

    As soon as I saw the subject of this post, I ran downstairs to my YA bookcase and grabbed my ‘pink raincoat’ version of the book from the shelf so I could have it in front of me while reading everyone’s comments. The Luckiest Girl is by far my very favourite YA novel. I wanted to be just like Shelley when I got to high school. I failed miserably, of course, I was so shy I would never have spoken up about doughnut holes—I don’t think I would even have had the nerve to go to the class meeting in the first place! But Shelley was my ideal.

    The du Jardin books are also favourites of mine—loved Double Date, the first Pam and Penny book. Does anyone remember Anne Emery’s books about the Burnaby girls, Jean and Sally? Image Cascade has recently reissued those as well.

  27. 27
    Susan Reader says:

    I’ve never read this particular Beverly Cleary, although I’ve read most of the others.  Having read Girl From Yamhill and My Own Two Feet though, it sounds as though this must have been her most autobiographical book.

  28. 28
    bookstorecat says:

    I have so many fond memories of reading and re-reading every B. Cleary book I could get my hands on. I’m glad there are people out there still enjoying them, and hopefully passing them on to the next generation.

  29. 29
    Diva says:

    I am a major Ramona fan (dragged 89 second graders to the musical a few years ago!). What I love about Cleary is her alert, sensitive narration. It was so easy to inhabit those characters, to believe in them truly.

    I’ll have to check this one out. Thank you so much for your perceptive review.

  30. 30
    Aziza says:

    A couple of side notes: the discussion of Sister of the Bride in Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading made me want to read it (skipped that one as a kid) and do further Cleary re-reading. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I will.

    Shelf Discovery‘s library catalog subject classification led me to Beyond Heaving Bosoms which led me (not really a romance book reader) to this site.

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