Unlike P.S. I Love You, I hadn’t read this one before, so it’s an adventure for all of us. We’ve got some hefty social anxiety, friends with Plans (and wall calendars as seen on the cover) and some very classic dating tropes. Grab your tea and your comfy hoodie and come hang out with me!
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Sarah Wendell: Hello, and welcome to episode number 481 of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books. I’m Sarah Wendell, and today is part two of the Sweet Dreams Recap, where I will be recapping The Popularity Plan by Rosemary Vernon.
So many of you emailed and commented and replied on social media about the Sweet Dreams series and the books themselves, and I have to say thank you so much. This is a new thing for me to just, you know, just you and me hanging out, and I really appreciate all of the positive feedback. I think my favorite part was how many of you, like Adeliza in the comments, mentioned B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. Oh, the nostalgia. I could spend literal hours in the Waldenbooks in my mall, and it was tiny. It was the tiniest store in the whole place, except for the kiosks. Farah Heron said on Instagram that the Sweet Dreams books were her inspiration to write teen romance, and Sally Thorne commented that she has a collection of them too. JustCammie55 on Instagram said that they checked PS, I Love You out of the library probably twenty times, and I completely believe it. I also got this email from Denise Holcomb, who gave me permission to share it with you:
I remember reading PS, I Love You in 1981. I was a freshman in high school. I remember it being angsty. It was a popular book, and I remember passing it around to a few people before Angela’s sister lost it. It may have been replaced. I also remember arguing with Donna next door over the pronunciation of Mariah; Donna insisted that it was the same as Maria – eye roll.
My mom brought them for me to stop me from reading her Harlequins. I was allowed to get three to four books out of the Scholastic flyer per month. For someone growing up watching daytime soaps, Dallas, and other dramatic shows, plus ABC Afterschool Specials, an angsty teen book seemed normal. The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and Eight is Enough dealt with sensitive subjects. There were a few of those Afterschool Specials adapted from teen books, like “Run, Don’t Walk,” so if you look at the subject descriptions, they weren’t cotton-candy-sweet stories.
That’s definitely true, and thank you for emailing me, Denise.
As part of my research for this series, I’ve also been reading a book called Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of ‘80s and ‘90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss. Y’all, if these books are your jam, go and find a copy of this book. I got mine from the library, and I did not want to give it back. This was not only great research, but I was absolutely flattened by nostalgia in this book. It’s delightful. And I will link to it in the show notes; never fear. And I’ll be sharing what I learned as I research these books in a future episode.
Thank you, as always, to our Patreon community. The Patreon community makes sure that every episode has a transcript and makes sure that every episode is accessible to everyone.
I have a compliment this week, which is so fun!
To Melissa O.: You are the human personification of sliding into bed with just-washed sheets right out of the dryer and no alarm set for the following morning.
If you would like a compliment of your very own or you’d like to join the Patreon community, have a look at patreon.com/SmartBitches.
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I want to send a very special hello to _sara_rose on Instagram, who said in the comments that The Popularity Plan was one of her favorites, so this episode is especially for you. Let’s get to the cover copy before we get started:
Frannie is so shy she thinks she might go all the way through high school without even being kissed, much less finding that one boy who would make her feel special. Then her girlfriends create “the plan,” and Frannie has so many boys after her that she can’t keep track of all the parties and dances! Not everyone falls for the plan, though. Ronnie, the quiet, talented boy in art class is the boy Frannie wants, the one she’s always dreamed of, but since everyone else started paying so much attention, Ronnie seems to be avoiding her! Will Frannie have to give up “the plan” and go back into her shell to show Ronnie how much she really cares?
So let’s do this: on with my recap of The Popularity Plan by Rosemary Vernon.
I have got my most cozy hoodie on, my favorite hoodie. I’ve got tea, I’ve got water, the cat is probably not going to eat during this episode? It’s hard to tell. If you ever hear a little clanking in the background, that’s him trying to eat out of his metal bowl on my desk while I’m talking. But it is time to get started with this recap.
In my paper copy, the name inside is Karen Wyatt. Karen, I don’t know where you are, but I hope your life is going marvelously.
Copyright in September of 199-, 1981, and the cover photo is by Pat Hill. I’m not sure if she is still working, but this photo is much more interesting. The heroine has really perfect blonde hair, and it’s sort of twisted back at her crown on each side in a way that I could never make happen. It is super sleek; it’s perfectly wavy. She has a gorgeous smile, and her hair has no frizz. She’s also wearing a really cute yellow top with cap sleeves, which I hate cap sleeves in every permutation, but she looks super cute in them, and she’s standing in front of this giant year-long calendar. So she has a plan, it involves a calendar, and I am here for it. I don’t know how I missed reading this book, because calendars and plans and hair that doesn’t frizz are three of my interests, so this book seems made for me.
The writer is Rosemary Vernon. She wrote at least seven Sweet Dreams, but there’s not a lot of information about her on the internet.
So shall we get started? Prepare yourself for interesting friendships between high school girls, a super retro series of dating tropes, and some social anxiety.
The book opens with Frannie at a school dance, and of course everyone wants to dance with her best friend Charlene, but then a boy asks her to dance and she thinks the dude is asking Charlene, but no, the guy is asking Frannie. And does Frannie freeze up in shyness, barely able to make conversation and doesn’t correct this poor kid Ben when he mishears her name? Yep. She is completely tongue-tied the entire time they’re dancing, it is super awkward, and when the music is over, Ben says, “See you ‘round,” really stiffly and then goes to join some people near the band.
Okay, first of all, they have a band at a school dance, which is really wow, because, I mean, at my high school, there was a band in among the students, but they definitely didn’t play any dances. I’ve never been to a school dance that had a band. Have you been to a school dance with a band? I mean, that’s really kind of amazing. And also, poor Ben! He must have thought she really didn’t like him, ‘cause she just didn’t talk the whole time.
So anyway, Frannie goes to find Charlene, who isn’t very nice about Ben, calling him a string bean, and tells Frannie she just needs experience, and she’s been in hiding for far too long. I don’t know what she’s in hiding from; I’m presuming it’s not the mob, because it doesn’t look like that kind of book.
Frannie doesn’t think she can get any experience talking to boys. She goes blank when a guy says hello, but Charlene was her ride to the dance, so she kind of has to wait until Charlene is ready to go. Frannie would rather have gone to the movies by herself than stand at the wall watching all her outgoing friends dance with boys, and where does this feeling of awkwardness receive its fuel? You have one guess, and if your guess was Charlene you are right. Charlene says:
“It’s crazy, Fran. Every weekend you sit home while all your friends have dates and someplace to go, and you never go anywhere. Don’t you feel a little weird?” Charlene pointed a coral-painted fingernail at her, and Frannie squirmed uncomfortably.
Okay, so now we know why Frannie feels a little insecure, and also I would just like to tell all of you that Charlene is my mother-in-law’s name, so this is a little weird, like I’m reading a YA about my mother-in-law? Super weird.
So we get a description of Frannie, which I am skipping because it’s full of anti-fat bias, which is one of the worst things about going back to look at vintage books. Charlene describes her as having a Nordic look, and I will say the cover model, much like the prior book, PS, I Love You, the model totally matches the description in the book. I appreciate that level of coordination, now that I know how rare it is.
Another boy asks Frannie to dance, and she just blurts out, “No!” right in his face, and then apologizes. But oh, poor dude. It says in the book:
Tim’s lower lip quivered slightly. Frannie knew she had upset him, but he had simply said, “Yeah, okay, some other time,” and hurried off. Frannie felt sick. Why did she say that?
And then Charlene comes back and super, super helpfully, Frannie thinks, now Charlene is going to chew me out, and guess what? She’s right, because Charlene had sent this poor kid Tim over to Frannie to ask her to dance, and Frannie was so anxious she was un-, unintentionally unkind. Frannie asks Charlene to stop trying to fix her up – you know, set a boundary – and Charlene says she will not, which tells you a lot about her right there, and ahoy, it is time for the theme of this book:
What’s it like to be popular, always having something to say? she wondered wistfully. Ever since she could remember, she’d been the shiest kid in her class. Being shy as a child was one thing, but when she became a teenager, shyness turned out to be a really big problem. Here she was in high school, expected to learn a whole new set of rules for relating to boys, gaining friends, and being social, and she was a big bust at it. She had already passed her sixteenth birthday, and she had never been on a date, all because she was still shy, too shy for her own good.
Frannie’s parents, especially her mother, were largely to blame.
And it’s interesting, because in the book right now, I don’t know if the narrator is telling me this, even though it’s very deeply from Frannie’s point of view, or if this is Frannie’s thoughts.
They did everything for her, arranging dentist and doctor’s appointments, accompanied her nearly everywhere, solved all her problems – of which she didn’t have many – served as her mouthpieces when she was too afraid to ask for help in stores, and made important decisions for her. Until Charlene came along, Frannie accepted their sheltering as totally normal parent behavior.
Now we know why there’s a problem, and to no one’s surprise, Charlene thinks this entire situation is terrible, and Frannie’s parents need to let her grow up.
It turns out they’re friends because in eighth grade Frannie came across Charlene crying into her locker because her parents were splitting up. Frannie comforts her, they walk home together, Frannie promises never to tell anyone that Charlene was crying in her locker, and Charlene includes Frannie in her friend group with Patti Davis – [laughs] – not the daughter of former president, I hope – and Valerie Sanders.
Back at the dance, Frannie takes a walk around school, and everyone Frannie sees is in pairs, and she’s alone and it sucks, but she doesn’t know what she can do about it. Then a voice says, “Hi.” Ronnie Schell, a quiet, dark-haired boy who sits behind her in art class says hello to her, and he continues down the dark hall like a mystery. She goes outside and sits on the bleachers, and Charlene comes to find her and says she thinks Frannie is in her own way; they need to work on her technique.
If her technique is to scream, “No!” when someone asks her to dance, it’s probably a good idea to maybe not do that to people, ‘cause I, I still feel bad for that poor boy!
Chapter two: Charlene brings Frannie home and tells Frannie’s parents that two boys asked Frannie to dance and then she went off to hide. [Laughs] And Frannie’s dad actually says, “I guess no one there turned you on, huh, Frannie?” Like, I can just hear her in my head going, oh my God, Dad!
Charlene thinks that Frannie’s dad looks like a blond version of Burt Reynolds, which, okay. Frannie’s mom offers to make them cocoa and gets out the cookies and tells them that when she was younger, she was very, very shy too, and that her mom did everything for her until she went to college. Patterns in parenting are always something, aren’t they? At college, Frannie’s mom – her name is Joan – had friends who coached her on what to say.
“When the girls first started the lessons, they had me carrying on imaginary conversations, pretending I was talking to a young man I liked. It was silly, but it worked. By the time I finished the lessons, I was on my way.”
“By the time we met, she was asking the boys out, which was really a switch in those days.”
Mrs. Bronson threw a dishtowel at her husband, which missed him by a foot. “I was not, Sam! Now, cut it out!”
This is sound advice, right? Like, practicing social interactions might seem weird, but I know it helps me a lot, especially when, you know, if you have social anxiety or social fears about interacting with people, it’s going to interfere with your ability to make conversation, and practicing just sort of reinforces that neural pathway.
Frannie’s parents continue to adorably flirt with each other, and Charlene clearly loves being around them. Then she asks to see Frannie’s room, because she wants to see the pillows Frannie made. It turns out Frannie is a really talented decorator. She uses secondhand furniture, and she made her own quilt and pillows! According to the book, by the way, the quilt is a vertically striped masterpiece, and I would just like Frannie to know that according to the rules of the Reddit quilting subreddit, you have to share the pattern, and if you don’t, that’s not fair. So I’m annoyed there’s no quilt pattern in here.
Charlene wishes she could make things like Frannie and says they need to do something about her shyness before it’s too late. Too late for what? It does not say, but it seems like this is a pressing problem that Charlene has been thinking about.
And then there is this scene, which made me so happy:
“Your mother gave me an idea.” Charlene stared at the TV screen, which was signing off for the night with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a restful ocean scene, before she went on.
Do you remember that, when TV stations would go off the air? I totally remember that!
So Charlene has decided that she should try to help Frannie like Joan’s friends did. “You’re such a cute, smart girl. It’s a shame to have you go to waste.”
What, what does this even mean? Before it’s too late! You’re going to waste! Like, what? But okay. That, this is the whole plot; I should stop questioning.
Charlene comes up with the idea for confidence lessons. Now, Frannie is not having any of this. Charlene will not be dissuaded. Frannie says no, and Charlene storms out, telling Frannie she’s cutting herself off from what Frannie really wants.
I mean, Charlene isn’t necessarily wrong, as we learn from Frannie’s diary, but man, you need to take about twenty percent off the top there, ‘cause you’re really getting angsty about this.
Chapter three: Frannie has been agonizing about her argument with Charlene, and it was indeed up to her to learn about dating, and maybe Charlene was right, so she calls to apologize, and Charlene is frosty about it! But – [laughs] – then Frannie says:
“I, I really am sorry, and I was wondering about your idea.” And then there was a longer silence and Frannie waited. “Charlene, are you there?”
“Excuse me; I was just picking myself up off the floor.”
Which I admit, I totally laughed out loud at. [Laughs] And when Frannie says okay, she’ll try the self-confidence idea, ten minutes later Charlene, Patti, and Valerie have dropped everything, and they are in her house, and they ready to plan.
Now, I will tell you right now that Valerie, who does not have a lot of page time, is my favorite character, because she walks in telling bad jokes, and I am saving Valerie’s joke for the outro because it is that bad. I am so excited.
Patti has brought a theme book with “clean, creamy, blue-lined pages.”
I love that new notebook feeling is universal, but do you know what a theme book is? I had to google it; I’m guessing it’s some kind of notebook. Maybe it’s just like an ordinary ruled notebook, but I’ve never heard of that before. Do you know what a theme book is? Please tell me in the comments or email me or something.
Patti, meanwhile, has felt-tip pens, and she is ready. “First, you need something to say.” Charlene has been thinking about this and she has got a plan.
“I’ve been thinking about it all weekend. We have to make her talk to boys. Put her in situations where she’s forced to open her mouth. I’ve thought of something like staged scenes she can take part in, subtle situations no boy will ever guess are staged. Natural occurrences, like – it sounds silly, I know, but how about dropping a pencil so that it rolls under a boy’s desk?”
They ask if there’s anyone in particular that Frannie is crushing on, because they are all on board with this idea, but Frannie decides that because Ronnie Schell is really shy and as shy as he, as she is, she doesn’t want to embarrass him, so she tells them to pick a guy for her, because they have good taste.
Well, they pick a guy for every day of the week. Damn! They start identifying dudes, they’re going to give her lines to memorize, and then every day there’s going to be a different task and a different dude for her to talk to. Patti says they can even do something like steal a boy’s schoolbook, and then she’ll have a whole scripted scene to give it back to him! “’I found this book with your name on it!’ He’ll say thanks, and she’ll say you’re welcome and glide away mysteriously.”
There’s a lot of mysterious gliding in this book, in the hallways. Like, I never glided around my high school mysteriously. Although, I mean, I could check with Adam, maybe he thought I did, but I don’t think so.
Another plan they come up with? Drop her books when another boy comes towards her, and he’ll help her pick them up. Day four: do you have any weekly tests? Just casually ask somebody how they did. No big deal! Friday: call and ask for an assignment, and Frannie is not on board. She has to talk to a boy on the phone? Oh my God!
So they come up – no lie – with two weeks’ worth of tasks and scripts, and they plan out her interaction, and Frannie is scared. She is convinced that people will figure out she is reading scripts, but the other girls tell her that they’ll be too busy noticing Frannie, especially after they give her a makeover!
It is really sweet of them to help her with learning how to have low-stakes interactions. Like, it’s really kind. And it’s only twenty-, page twenty-nine, so this book is going!
Then Frannie’s mom announces that she’s made brownies, and Val makes a “there goes my diet” comment, and there’s some gross anti-fat bias, which I am skipping because ugh!
And Frannie then writes in her diary that night, which she hasn’t done in a while, because she hasn’t had anything to say.
October 12th: Today, Charlene, Patti, and Val came up with a plan to get rid of my shyness and make it easier for me to talk to boys. I am really scared, but if I don’t try it they will hate me, I know it! I couldn’t eat my dinner. I felt sick. The plan starts tomorrow.
Chapter four: Frannie breaks out the hot rollers, wears a blue sweater, puts on some makeup, and promptly dies of embarrassment when her dad tells her she looks pretty. Val pulls up in her mom’s Dodge Dart, and, y’all, of course I googled this car, because I’m going to google all the cars in these books, of course. This was a box; it was a box on wheels. It is such a box; I love it. And all of her friends whistle at Frannie, and Frannie gets in the car and says:
“Hey, what are you, a cheering squad?”
“You betcha! We’ll be cheering you all the way.”
Frannie felt Charlene’s confidence reach out to her. I wish I felt so sure of myself, Frannie thought.
Aw! Charlene has even brought a pencil so that Frannie would have her props ready to go. Her first target is Gary Houseman. Frannie is so nervous, and outside Frannie’s English class, Charlene tells her to just stop worrying, will you?! Like it’s that easy. “It’s only a boy, a real human being, for crying out loud.” Charlene wishes her luck and heads to class.
And in Frannie goes. She likes English, and there’s a book report where they have to find a quote that sums up the theme of the book. People are groaning all around her, but Frannie’s cool with it.
Then she nudges her pencil off the desk, and it rolls under Gary Houseman’s chair! Oh no, he doesn’t even notice! But Shawn McNeil does, and he tells Gary that Frannie’s pencil is under his chair, and, y’all, this is a big, tense moment for poor Frannie. Gary picks up the pencil very kindly and says, “Here you go. Next time, say something.” And Frannie is so overwhelmed she says, “Oh, thank you!” too loudly and gets shushed by the teacher, which makes her want to die of humiliation again.
She writes in her diary that night that she wants to bail, but she has to admit the plan seems to be working, because Gary did notice her.
Chapter five: Page Garvey. This is the start of chapter five, y’all:
“Here’s Page’s biology book.” Patti thrust the text into Frannie’s hands.
“How’d you get it?”
“Oh, I just waited until he took the book out, then I tripped him.”
“You did what?!”
“Yeah, I tripped him! Books flew everywhere! You should have seen him. I helped him pick them up, of course.”
Wow, poor Page, sprawled in the hallway, books scattered all around him.
Yeah, these girls are not to be trifled with!
Gary smiles at Frannie, but doesn’t speak to her in class, and she stares at him in a creeper fashion, noticing hairs on his arms, but also notices that his jeans have been ironed with crisp creases. Oh yeah!
So the teacher announces that Page has lost his book, and has anyone seen it? And Frannie freezes. She eventually remembers to raise her hand, and she gives Page the book, but then she can’t think of her lines! Ooh, saw that coming. So Frannie runs out of the classroom – [laughs] – and Page heads after her, catching up to her just before she can go hide in the girls’ room. He just wanted to thank her and ask where she found it, and he’s holding her arm so gently that, yay! she remembers her lines, which was basically where she found the book. So Page walks Frannie back to biology, and of course everyone is staring at her, and she says, “Her shyness enveloped her like a gunnysack,” which is a word I have not read in a very long time, gunnysack.
Then some people snicker at them walking in together, but Page was really nice, and he didn’t seem bothered. And later, Frannie writes in her diary, “A popular person can do just about anything and get away with it, but an unpopular one has to work hard not to do anything too weird, or she can become the butt of a joke.”
Frannie is not wrong here. She’s very sensitive to what popularity is and isn’t and what the effects are.
That night, Charlene gives Frannie some more makeup lessons and tells her she should get involved at school more because she’s got talents that only her friends know about – aw! And in another note to being seen, Frannie looks at herself in the mirror and then writes in her diary that night, “I didn’t know I could look this pretty.”
Chapter six: Target: Fred Brown. She doesn’t run into Fred, but she does see Ronnie Schell, the really quiet art dude who she was checking out at the dance. Frannie just stops at her locker and stares at Ronnie, but then Fred, whose locker is under hers, stands up and knocks her books everywhere. Fred is terribly embarrassed, and he of course helps her pick them up, but she remembers to talk to him, and she isn’t tongue-tied. He walks her to art class, and they have a normal conversation and she talks to him, and she learns that Fred wants to major in Physics and doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, and my dude, I just want you to know that is okay.
The next day in Art, her target is Adam Stone, but Adam Stone is clearly smitten with Lucy Marshall, so there is no way she can interrupt their flirting. Like, Adam paints Lucy’s nose with paint, for heaven’s sake. That’s, that’s, that’s next-level flirting; Frannie can’t do that.
So Frannie has a meeting in her room with sodas and chips and dip with the other girls, and I would really like some chips and dip now, some really salty chips and some french onion dip, and now I’m really hungry and you probably are too, so I’m sorry. Charlene, who must have some money or time or both, proposes that for the Halloween dance that they rent – seriously – a costume like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, which, by the way, don’t rent that costume. You know, something big and unforgettable that’ll get everyone’s attention.
My cat is trying to open the window shade with his face. This is very weird.
So back to Halloween: Charlene’s plan is that they’ll get these great, amazing costumes, and Frannie will be wearing a mask so that when it’s revealed that shy, bookish Frances was wearing the wow costume, everyone would be so impressed.
Now, two things: one, if this was taking place now, do you think they would have to be like sexy librarian or, I don’t know, sexy artist? I wonder if there’s a sexy COVID costume? Don’t google that. I’m not googling that, and I don’t want you to google that. Let’s just pretend I didn’t say that.
Sarah: Also – yes, Wilbur is eating now – how many dances does this school have? What is their dance budget like? What does it meant that there are this many dances? How did they budget for this? I have questions.
Chapter seven: It’s Friday! She has to call a boy! [Gasps] And she’s scoping out the boy she’s going to call: Emmett Caldwell. All of the names of the boys in this book could be law firms or streets in a new housing development. Anyway, Emmett Caldwell is really lanky, has lots of freckles, but he’s really smart, so if she calls him for the assignment it won’t be weird.
But in Art, hello! Ronnie sets up his easel under the skylight – this school’s budget, y’all – and asks as she goes by what she thinks of his art in progress! Ohhh! She is crushing on him so hard. Well, it turns out that Ronnie is painting signs for the school dance – again, this school’s budget is really baffling. That afternoon, she says hello to Charlene’s boyfriend and realizes that she feels less shy and anxious about talking to boys. Then she calls Emmett, gets the homework – which she notes is always the same, so it was not a high-risk call – and is absolutely elated that at the end of the first week she actually called a boy on the phone. Go, Frannie.
Chapter eight: After spending most of Friday night daydreaming about Ronnie, on Saturday Frannie’s mom Joan offers to take her to Semple’s because there’s a sale on makeup, and maybe they’ll get some clothes too. Frannie’s dad is all, don’t bring back some other Frannie, and she says, “Don’t worry; Mom’s not going to let them make me into a wanton woman,” which is not a thing I knew happened in department stores? I’ve been to Nordstrom and Macy’s and JCPenney, and I’ve never seen this happen. I feel like I have been in the wrong malls.
So it turns out Joan knows everybody at Semple’s. The makeup counter woman does a wonderful job giving Frannie a makeover, including tweezing her eyebrows – ouch! – and her mom buys every product she used, which, damn, department store makeup is expensive! Then they go to the Juniors department and they buy clothes, and you know I love the clothes descriptions in these books, right? She buys a silky peach blouse and a plaid skirt.
When they get home, the girls come over to give Frannie dancing lessons, and her dad tries to tell her that she needs to learn how to waltz, but all of the formal dancing gives Frannie an idea for her costume.
Chapter nine: On Monday, Frannie has to buy a candy bar and offer it to Ernie Sanchez, who always asks if anyone has food before class begins, and he’s partial to Hershey bars, so she gives him a Hershey bar and he winks at her!
Then they go costume shopping, and Charlene is still on this Civil War idea, which yikes! But Frannie realizes, hold up, she can sew, and she knows what costume she wants, so she’s going to make her own costume, which will probably end up costing as much or more than the rental, but it’s still really cool.
Meanwhile, she’s been using some of the other opening gambits to talk to boys she’s already talked to, and it seems to be working. She’s still super moony over Ronnie, but he hasn’t talked to her again. But then Page asks her to the football game, and Frannie has her first date. Charlene notices that Frannie knows nothing about football and says she’ll have to teach her some of the rules so she’ll have something to talk about with Page. Which is a little weird, but also very good planning.
Frannie, as her next popularity plan task has to ask this sarcastic dude named Chuck Stanley about a question in one of their classes, and he’s like, you’re the smart one; why are you asking me? And she is super embarrassed, but she survives the embarrassment.
Then it’s date night, and oh my God, this paragraph, y’all. This – okay. Okay. You ready? This, this is really something.
Frannie needn’t have worried about making conversation with Page, for he had carried it singlehandedly from the moment they’d left her house. Her parents had behaved themselves too, not asking too many questions about what Page’s father did for a living and what kind of car he drove.
This is why I would never have wanted to date. Oh my gosh. So, anyway. Page really doesn’t notice poor Frannie at the game unless she says something in what she calls football-ese, but then he says, let’s go out for a Coke after the game and talk about the game, which makes Frannie sort of laugh a little, but she agrees. It seems like Page doesn’t talk about anything other than football, and it turns out that he used to play junior varsity until he hurt his knee badly, and he is, in fact, a little football-obsessed. Frannie gets home, tells her parents it went well, but that all he wanted to talk about was football. They do not seem surprised or alarmed about this.
So in the end, she writes in her diary that she was glad and relieved: glad it was a success and relieved that it was over. Which is really baffling to me. According to whom was it a success? If she didn’t have a good time or enjoy herself with Page, how was it a success? Also, there’s a part where – and I noticed this when I was rereading – Page chose a place called Tony’s, a pizzeria. He ordered Cokes and slices for both of them. Like, he doesn’t even ask her what she wants! He just chose the place. I guess that’s normal, but it was still a little bit weird, but, you know, okay.
And now it’s time for the Halloween dance, and there are lots of pages spent getting ready and dance lessons and dress descriptions, which you know is the part that I love in these books. Her dress had a scooped neckline, a thin waist, and long, lace-trimmed sleeves. The skirt was very full, but not nearly as full as the original ones worn in the 18th century. Frannie’s mother told her she’d have to wear a multitude of petticoats plus an iron webbing to be really authentic. Frannie agreed that the original style would be too highly impractical for a dance. As it was, she would wear several petticoats. She was in love with the billowing satiny folds of blue and the way the lacy bodice pinched in at the waist. It wasn’t an exact replica of the dress in Ronnie’s poster. The poster girl’s gown was high-necked and white, while Frannie’s was, in her opinion, much more striking and appealing.
Aw, she styled her dress after the poster!
So they go to the dance, and Frannie is indeed the subject of a lot of attention in her historical gown. Everyone is impressed that she made it. Gary Houseman asks her to dance, and then Page Garvey cuts in after three dances with Gary, which I think means that she might be engaged to him, or maybe that’s not this kind of book.
Charlene is beside herself. She says, “The girls are green, and the boys are excited.” And I’m not sure why either one is a good thing.
There’s more dancing with different boys, and Frannie gets a lot of attention, and I think part of that is because she made her own gown, she chose her costume, and she’s feeling more confident in herself. Then she wins Most Beautiful Costume, despite not knowing that there were awards for costumes, ‘cause her friends didn’t tell her.
Charlene says that:
Everyone was talking about her, about how cute she is, how nice, and how come we didn’t notice her before? Just being at the dance was great for her reputation, her friend insisted. “A girl has to be seen around. She has to mingle with the crowd. How else will anyone know who she is?”
So popularity and reputation are major, major factors here.
Now Charlene brings over a wall calendar for tracking all her dates, which links back to the cover. That’s why the model is standing in front of this calendar! Oh, I love this. And then Gary calls to ask her to a Halloween party! So she has to write it on her new calendar.
Frannie is indeed very popular at school on Monday after winning Most Beautiful Costume, people who’d never spoken to her before saying hello, but Frannie grabs her new confidence and says hi to Ronnie, who says hello and is very, very shy. Frannie still really likes him, but Lucy Marshall, who’s the girlfriend of Adam Stone or the object of his flirting, is super envious, in part because Adam is now flirting with Frannie and Lucy doesn’t like it. According to Charlene – and this is apparently a normal thing – the other girls hating her for being popular is part of being popular, and Frannie does not like this. There is some snide girl-on-girl crime.
And uh-oh! Now Frannie’s mom is mad. She does not like that Frannie has said yes to all these dates! She has a date Wednesday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday and the next Thursday, and Frannie’s mom tells her that she has to cancel two of them because she has homework, and her parents are also now limiting her phone calls, which is really weird because she didn’t do anything wrong. But they don’t like it, so, oh darn.
Frannie feels “like I’m walking a tightrope between being a nobody and a somebody, and any minute something will happen to make me a nobody again.” Poor thing.
Frannie goes on some dates, boys talk, and “She was glad she was a good listener.” Mm-hmm. At the party with Gary, folks are drinking, and she is very overwhelmed, but Gary takes her home and kisses her gently, so she has a first kiss! And it’s fine.
The next day in Art – [laughs] – they have to go out and draw people’s houses, and I have to say, I would be very alarmed if I looked out my window and there were a bunch of high schoolers sitting in the yard sketching my house, but okay. But she sits next to Ronnie, and she manages to have a conversation with him about art, and it’s really sweet! But then Adam Stone screws it all up by flirting with her, and Frannie is very wary, because she really doesn’t want Lucy to hate her.
Frannie is feeling several sources of tension here. She’s achieving what she’s been told is the right goal, which is being popular by conforming, but then there’s also the part where she’d like to be herself, regardless of how it results in, you know, relative popularity. She’s also struggling with the idea that she can’t be popular without making enemies, which is not what she wants.
Then the tension ramps up, because it turns out some of the boys don’t like how much Frannie dates lots of different people – oh no! Freddy says to her, “You’re one of those girls who doesn’t like being tied down,” and Frannie’s like, I just learned to date! What is your problem? Frannie writes in her diary and looks back at the prior pages where she said she really wanted a special boyfriend, someone who appreciated her, that could be a close friend.
“I don’t feel really, truly romantic about any of the boys I’ve been dating. I felt that way at the dance with the dress and the attention and all that, but I didn’t really feel that way about any one person.”
Then Frannie thought of Ronnie and how he spoke, what it was like to stand near him. “Diary, maybe there is one person I’d like to get serious about.”
And then Frannie makes a really important realization: “I love dating, but I want that wonderfulness that my friends have with their boyfriends. Ronnie is special, different from all the other boys.” She realizes she wants a romance, not lots of dates.
Chapter fifteen: So there’s another party, but it’s couples only. Who throws these parties where you have to come as a couple? So Frannie has to find a date, and all the boys that she’s been dating are fine, but she’s really not interested in them romantically, so she takes the risk to ask Ronnie, because that’s who she’d like to go with. But he turns her down! He can’t go because he’s busy that night, and she is just crestfallen. So she goes with Cal, and guess who’s at the party? Ronnie, with a girl named Arlene Paine.
Oh, the pain, the drama, the angst, and they’re having this, like, super-serious conversation in the corner, and it’s super weird with this party, and Frannie is just miserable. She isn’t into Cal, because Cal is interested in having someone listen to him go on and on about football –
Sarah: – and Zeb doesn’t like Cal either. But unfortunately, Charlene doesn’t like Ronnie. She doesn’t think that Ronnie is a great catch for Frannie because he’s not popular. And then Charlene and Frannie have this really weird fight because Charlene is mad that Frannie likes Ronnie, who isn’t popular, and all the most popular boys are obsessed with Frannie and she should be happy. It’s such an odd fight.
Frannie decides that she is going to harness her new courage and chat with Ronnie in Art class, but Adam Stone literally pushes his way between them, which is just so gross, because it forces Frannie to manage to get him away from her without making him mad – because of course she has to manage his feelings – and she’s realized that, far from being a terrifying monolith that boys are scary, boys are actually different people, and she likes some of them more than others. She doesn’t want to go on dates where she’s bored, and she doesn’t want to put someone else’s interests above her own, but that’s what she has to do to be popular, and it’s stressing her out a little bit.
Gary, meanwhile, tells her that he likes that she likes to date different people, because girls who get serious after the first date really weird him out. She really wants to go on a date with Ronnie, but he’s turned her down, and he hasn’t asked her out. She has some more bad dates with Cal that she really doesn’t enjoy and writes in her diary, “Can I afford to give up being popular?” Spoiler alert: yes, yes, you can. It’s not worth being unhappy.
Charlene thinks that Ronnie is some chump and is mad that after they picked her “the cream of the crop,” she doesn’t like any of them. Charlene is really invested in Frannie’s popularity in this very strange way. But Frannie cancels dates with popular boys because she’s thinking that Ronnie isn’t interested in her because she’s dating all these dudes. Then all the girls have this meeting in Frannie’s room where they’re like, we did all this work to make you popular, and now you don’t want to date the popular boys. Are our boys not good enough for you? Are we not good enough for you? Then they collectively storm out, and Frannie is sad, and I am very bewildered.
Now she has fewer dates and less to do, and of course her mom is worried that she’s not going out, and she’s worried that her friends aren’t coming over, and Frannie says everyone is weird, and she’s not wrong.
Ronnie doesn’t talk to her unless she initiates the conversation, and I’m a little nervous ‘cause we’re getting really close to the end of the book and it hasn’t wrapped up yet. For a romantic interest, Ronnie does not have a lot of page time here.
Patti, who for the whole book has had a boyfriend, tells Frannie that if she doesn’t have a date for the Christmas dance she should just give up on her search for her Prince Charming, starts describing her dress, and then brushes Frannie off. These girls are really not cool at this point.
The night of the Christmas ball – yes, there is another school dance; this one is the Christmas ball – Frannie goes to the movies by herself for a double feature. Go, Frannie! And who should be there? Ronnie! With his super-rude and hilarious little brother Paul. She ends up sitting with them for the second movie, and after the movie Ronnie says he’s surprised that Frannie was there by herself because, “You’re one of those popular girls who are generally unapproachable.” So he was shy because she became popular, whereas she became popular to get over her shyness.
Frannie, understandably, is not sure how to take that, and Ronnie says it’s a hang-up of his, which okay, and then he asks her on a picnic the next day, saying he’ll call her tomorrow, and Frannie is thrilled. Will he call? Yes! Does he? He did! She spills coffee down her front because she is so excited, poor thing, and he asks her on the picnic. But then she starts making the food, which really confused me, because he invited her, but she now starts cooking, so all right.
They go on the picnic, they go for a walk on the beach, and Ronnie helps set things up, which Frannie appreciates, saying she was glad he didn’t expect her to do all the preparation just because she was a girl. Then they clear things up, which is really good, because there’s like six pages left in the book!
So it turns out he went to the couples party at Marilyn’s house because he was invited, and he asked his next-door neighbor Arlene, and they’ve been friends since they were like six. Neither of them explains why it had to be a couple party, so my guess is that neither of them really know. Ronnie says he’s surprised that she didn’t go to the Christmas ball and was at the movies, and she said, well, no one asked me. And he was like, wait, but you’re popular! And she said, I used to be popular; I sort of gave it up. And then they talk about art and painting the beach, and then they kiss.
Suddenly Ronnie’s arms stole about her waist. He drew her to him and kissed her, tentatively at first, then long and passionately. Frannie closed her eyes and concentrated on his tender, caressing touch, satisfied that at last this was Ronnie and no one else.
In the final chapter of this book, she stands up to her friends. She goes up to them in the cafeteria and says, listen, I really appreciate everything you did, I value our friendship, I’ll never forget what you did to help me get a date and overcome my shyness, but she really likes Ronnie and they’re dating, and she’s really grateful to them because without them she might not have had the opportunity to talk to him in the first place. They don’t apologize, but they do get all teary, and they ask her to sit down, and she sits with them for a minute, and then she goes to do some things with Ronnie.
“He must be really something,” Charlene says.
“He is.” Then she skipped across the cafeteria to meet him.
And that is the end of the book.
Ahhh! So what stands out about The Popularity Plan for you? For me, one thing I noticed, much like the last one, was there was not actually a lot of romance or courtship. This was more of a coming-of-age and recognizing personal priorities story, which makes sense. I just, it still says A Sweet Dreams Romance. I’m looking at the words right now –
Sarah: – it says Romance on the spine. Zeb does not like this either. Parts of it felt very familiar. The idea of fulfilling a role to be popular that isn’t really you; the part where her friends’ involvement and support seem kind of conditional based on her compliance to their expected standards of behavior. Ooh, yeah! Also familiar.
I remember in high school being aware of popularity and being aware of who was popular, but I thought more about the big groups of friends who would hang out together and the ones who, you know, buy full pages of the yearbook and post collages of themselves and seem to have an endless supply of pictures to put in the collage? That was what I was more envious of in high school. So the friendship parts of this story seemed much more relevant to me.
But the thing is, Frannie’s friends were not wrong. She was afraid to talk to people, to boys, to anybody! And she needed to learn how! Once she learned how and she was the subject of a lot of attention, she figured out what dates she liked and what dates she didn’t, but the reputation part was the thing that upset her. And the part where what other people thought of her determined what other people thought of her, so, you know, Ronnie didn’t want to ask her out, even though she liked him and he liked her, because she was popular, and that was some nonsense.
The part that jumped out at me most is actually on the next to the last page of the book, on page 153? She says to her friends, when she’s, you know, basically telling them to knock it off in the cafeteria? Frannie says:
“I was what you’d call too popular for my own good. I don’t need to be the most popular girl in school to be happy. The plan worked so well that I had a reputation for not wanting to be tied down, and I don’t think any of you would like a reputation like that. You all have steady boyfriends, you know.”
So she calls them out on being hypocrites, but she also says, “I don’t need to be the most popular girl…to be happy.” Books like this kind of codify what are, you know, the rules. All of the rules are successful in their bid to control people because of their lack of specificity, so in this instance, you can wear makeup, but don’t get a makeover that turns you into a wanton woman. Be popular so people know who you are, but don’t be too popular or the other girls will hate you. Be yourself and like who you like, but make sure you date the popular boys, because those are the boys that you should be dating, and yikes! That’s a lot.
The thing that stands out the most for me is the toxicity of the friendship between the girls and also how much Frannie grew up and learned to be herself because she got over her shyness, and even though I don’t love how unsupportive her friends were if she didn’t comply with what they wanted, they weren’t wrong: she did need scripts and practice to learn how to talk to people, and you don’t really get that practice unless you just go ahead and do it. It’s kind of hard.
However, I will counter the message of the book by telling you: Be as popular as you want. You can talk to people, or don’t. Eat all the chips and brownies you want, and don’t worry about it. Like the Kacey Musgrave song says: Make lots of noise, Kiss lots of boys, Or kiss lots of girls If that’s something you’re into.
Out of five stars, I’d probably give this a three, three-and-a-half. There were parts of Frannie’s narration that were really, really funny, and I love how she figured out how to be herself. But in terms of romance – it says Romance right here on the spine! It says Sweet Dreams Romance! – I need more romance in the romance, and that was what Frannie wanted! She wanted a romance! I also wanted a romance.
So I ask you, do you know what a theme book is? Did your school dances have a live band? Did you have a dance every other month when you were in school? And who planned them, and what kind of budget are we talking about here? I would almost think this is not a public school.
Most importantly, did you read this book? Do you remember this one? I definitely want to hear from you if you did. You can email me at [email protected]; you can comment on the entry at smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast. Either way, I would love to hear from you if this is a book you remember, and if – [laughs] – and if this technique has worked for you, because I kind of think it’s amazing.
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Before we get to the joke – which is coming from the book! It’s from the character Valerie in the book – I’m so excited about this; like, absurdly excited – I want to tell you two things: one, next week, Friday, November 5th, I will be sharing part two of a two-part crossover with the Big Gay Fiction Podcast. Jeff and Will and Amanda and I answered a bunch of listener questions, and the Big Gay Fiction Podcast will release part one on November 4th, so you get all four of us being ridiculous for two episodes back to back. I hope you will tune in. Then, November 12th, you and I will be hanging out again while I recap Sweet Dreams #3, Laurie’s Song by Suzanne Rand. Y’all need to look at this cover. This girl looks intense, and it seems like there’s a hot rocker boy, so this is going to be a lot of fun.
Let’s do the joke. Shall we do the joke? This is Valerie’s bad joke from The Popularity Plan, page 23. You know I love this character because this is how she enters the whole story:
What do you call two spiders who just got married?
Give up? What do you call two spiders who just got married?
[Laughs] It’s so silly! Newly-webs! I, I need, I need characters that have bad jokes. Like, I feel like this is, this is the literature that speaks to me the most. This girl has a wall calendar and her friends tell terrible jokes; I love it!
On behalf of everyone here, we wish you the very, very best of reading. Have a wonderful weekend and we’ll be back here next week!
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This podcast transcript was handcrafted with meticulous skill by Garlic Knitter. Many thanks.