Kristina McBride pays tribute to ‘the wonderful team at Usborne UK for all of the time spent on the Anglicization of this novel’. Whatever changes the team made, Blue Springs, Ohio, small town home to the six American High School juniors whose summer fills these pages, remains an ocean and a culture apart.
Within a few pages, there’s a death. In a week or two, narrator Maggie had planned to surprise long-term boyfriend Joey by sleeping with him for the first time when his folks are out of town. But now, hanging out at the group’s favourite place, the Jumping Hole, she responds to a dare to leap with Joey from a cliff into a pool ten metres below. Maggie is far more timid than Shannon or Tanna or Pete or Adam or reckless Joey, all of whom have made the leap many times. At the very last moment, she doesn’t jump (though Joey does) because…well, that’s the story.
Something stopped her in her tracks. But the moment has erased her memory and it takes most of the next 300 pages to work out why she didn’t jump. Did she distract Joey just before he took off so that, fatally, he hit a rocky ledge instead of splashing into the water below? What slowly emerges is a web of lies and tensions spun between the friends. Readers will guess that Maggie will eventually ‘let go’ and ‘move on’; but will they care? It’s hard to feel concern for any of this group. They’re self-absorbed, inclined to self-dramatise; affluent, middle-American kids whose lives revolve, as far as the novel tells, around parties, drink, cars and motorbikes, hanging out and picking over their relationships. Well, you might say, that’s teenagers for you. But thank God it’s quite definitely not teenagers, who beyond the stereotype are surely far more complex and thoughtful; as are the potential readers of this novel.
Even though readers might feel they have spotted all the clues and know how things will end (yeah, she should have been with Adam all along) well before Maggie gets there, there is certainly interest in seeing how things unravel. But the writing is inclined to be repetitive and predictable, even lush. Characters regularly swipe their hair away from their foreheads, or eyes glint in the moonlight. If you come across ‘…a field of grazing cows, their crooning twining around the rays of sunlight that pierced the air’ on p.234, you would probably rather not read on p.236, ‘Pete strummed the guitar, spilling a chord out into the rays of sunlight trickling through the leaves’. The echo is too strong, there’s no restraint in the prose to leave space for readers to occupy. Maybe the warning was there in the book’s opening lines: ‘”So you’re gonna do it?” Adam looked at me, his sun-blazed cheeks aglow with a daring smile.’
Good Soap – and most of us enjoy and even need it now and again – doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. This novel comes garlanded on its covers with claims that ‘this is the American Dream ripped apart’, that it’s ‘as heartbreakingly real as it is unexpectedly romantic’. I don’t mean to be miserable and stuffy about this, but there’s strong YA literature around dealing with comparable ideas (see, for example, Only Ever Always, which also begins with a death) that draws readers into the more nuanced and trustworthy emotional explorations they deserve.