Friday, February 20, 2009

How To Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier

I didn't notice anyone actually looking askance at me on the train while I read How to Ditch Your Fairy, but I wouldn't be surprised if it attracted a few surprised glances. It has a quite girly and teen-looking cover -- though that's very appropriate, since this is a book primarily for teenage girls, about a teenage girl. I doubt many men my age will be reading it, but that's their problem, not mine.

How to Ditch is Justine Larbalestier's fourth novel and first standalone book, after the "Magic or Madness" trilogy. (And, just for full disclosure: I don't know Justine well, but we have met a couple of times, I did buy that trilogy for my old employer the book club, and we once saw a Mets game together with a mutual friend.) She's also a very active blogger, where she's sprightly and charming enough to almost get me interested when she starts running on about cricket.

How to Ditch, like her first trilogy, is written in first person -- a very common strategy for YA novels, since it makes the book immediate and grounded when done well. And it's done very well here: the narrator is fourteen-year-old budding sports fanatic Charlie (short for Charlotte, which is mentioned possibly twice the the entire novel), a freshman in New Avalon Sports High, a highly competitive school governed by a thousand picky rules in the most self-important city in a country that is neither the USA nor Australia but a little of both. And her life, and her desires, drive the story from the first page.

In this unnamed country, everyone has a fairy -- they're invisible but obvious, giving each person a specific kind of luck all the time. Some people have good hair fairies, so they always look perfect. Charlie's best friend has a shopping fairy, so she always finds perfect things at amazing prices. But Charlie -- fourteen-year-old athletic Charlie, living in a big city -- has a parking fairy; cars always find the perfect spot when she's in them. She can't stand her fairy, and has been trying to dump it for most of her life.

As How to Ditch Your Fairy opens, Charlie has been walking everywhere for two months straight. No one completely knows how to get rid of a fairy, but "starving" it is a popular method, and works some of the time. But all that walking makes Charlie continually late and tired, so the demerits in her very rule-obsessed school are starting to pile up. And once demerits get too high, the only way to expunge them is public service -- doing more work, after an already long and physically grueling schoolday, which means being even more late and even more tired and having even less time to do schoolwork...which is likely to lead to more demerits. (New Avalon Sports High is clearly built on the concept of testing to destruction; they believe that the best are the ones left when everyone else falls down.)

On top of her general hatred of her fairy, Charlie has three problems: there's a new boy, Steffi, who she's crazy about. She wants to start dating him, or be good friends with him, or, at the very least, not see a girl she hates kissing him. There's another boy, a single-mindedly dull but fantastically gifted athlete she calls Danders Anders, who demands that she ride in his car to get him parking spots all the time, and backs up his demands by grabbing her bodily. She wants to avoid him at all costs. And Fiorenza, another girl in her class, who has an All-the-Boys-Love-You fairy -- which means all the girls hate her -- seems to want to be her friend. Charlie is pretty sure she wants to stay as far away from Fiorenza as she can. (But she's been wrong before.)

How to Ditch rolls out from that premise, driven forward by Charlie's tough, can-do voice and her utter determination to get rid of her fairy. Larbaliestier also uses a Bridget Jones-esque running tally at the beginning of each chapter, with numbers of current demerits, conversations with Steffi, attempted kidnappings, near-death experiences, and various other plot complications, to both keep the stakes up -- the reader is kept reminded of the escalating demerits and other problems -- and to add a humorous note. It's not a heavily plotted book, but that's just fine -- it's driven by Charlie's voice and her obsession with getting rid of her fairy, so too much plot would only make it overcomplicated.

(Although it could have used just a bit more plot -- the Danders Anders subplot leaves a number of questions in midair as the novel ends.)

How to Ditch Your Fairy is a fizzy concoction of a book, bubbling up in your head as you read it and leaving you grinning and just slightly drunk on the force of Charlie's personality. It just might be the great Australian feminist monkey knife-fighting cricket Elvis mangosteen fairy novel. (Though it could have used just a bit more monkey knife-fighting, and I think I missed Elvis entirely.)


Hagelrat said...

this sounds fun!

wdstarr said...

I'm coming into this late, having seen your October 2009 repost of the review...

There's another boy, a single-mindedly dull but fantastically gifted athlete she calls Danders Anders, who demands that she ride in his car to get him parking spots all the time, and backs up his demands by grabbing her bodily.

Does this mean that the book's set in a nation that not only "is neither the USA nor Australia but a little of both" but also has the kidnapping-is-a-crime laws of neither?

Andrew Wheeler said...

wdstarr: Something like that -- much like both the US and Australia, it has the "star athletes can get away with just about anything as long as it's not an immediate felony" attitude in spades.

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