Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings by Megan McCafferty

#s 50 and 51 (woo hoo! I hit my goal of 50 books) in my reading challenge for the year, and #s 26 and 27 in my summer book challenge (so I read more than half my books for the year this summer), were Megan McCafferty’s first two Jessica Darling novels, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. McCafferty is most notorious lately because several sections of these books were plagiarized by Kaavya Viswanathan. I have decidedly mixed feelings about these books. Some parts I love. But other parts nagged at me, and made me feel guilty for tearing through the books at a breakneck pace, and putting off other things. (”Mom, play with cars with me.” “In a minute, honey.”)

Jessica is a smart high school girl who is devastated when her best friend moves away. In Sloppy Firsts, she tries to come to terms with this, as well as with her growing crush on bad boy Marcus Flutie. She also navigates the typical American high school obstacles like nagging parents, friends who aren’t friends, and a demeaning summer job. Second Helpings continues the story, picking up the relationship between Jessica and Marcus that ended so abruptly in the first book, and continuing the story through high school graduation.

What doesn’t work: While the first book has a satifying story arc for Jessica and her absent friend Hope, it leaves the reader completely hanging about Marcus. This is not an ending, but an open door for the sequel. The second book is not plotted as tightly as the first. Her sister coming home for her pregnancy was not explained and seemed to be a plot device, as was the commitment of her grandmother to a retirement home, which was stereotypically full of sassy, smart seniors. Jessica and Marcus, over the course of the two books, follow a predictable relationship arc: good girl and bad, experienced, older boy meet cute, tension builds, they fight about something stupid, the separation is drawn out because of misunderstanding, and they get together in the end. And while these books are shelved with adult books in a bookstore even though they are young adult novels, when Jessica finally does have sex with Marcus, the details are coyly omitted, though there has been frank talk about the sex life of others throughout both books. The device of writing monthly letters to her friend wears thin over the two books. I, like her friends in the book, just wanted her to get over Hope’s departure and move on.

What works: Jessica’s voice is strong, smart, and funny. The romance between her and Marcus may be cliche, but I liked it anyway and was glad to see them get together. Jessica grows and changes over the course of the book, most notably in relation to her parents and to some friends at school. The inclusion of a brother who died of SIDS provided good grounding for the characters. These were believeable and complex characterizations and didn’t feel gratuitous. Her acerbic observations are dead on, whether she’s analyzing herself or others, especially at a summer program for “gifted” students. Her resurrected friendship with a childhood friend, her changed friendship with a footballer, and her encounters with her crush Paul are all funny, touching, and real. There is a great deal of sharp social commentary as well on high school life.

In the end, they felt more like guilty pleasures than substantive reads. I will read the third book, but I’ll get it from the library first.

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