The setting is conventional and contemporary: Vancouver, with what’s left of a couple of damaged families coming together to forge a new one. Within that framework, though, we’re offered a sitcom of a novel, with the exaggeration of character, dialogue and events which is the staple of the genre. As so often in teenlit, there are alternating narrators and the comedy is embedded in their differing voices. The partial perspectives of Stewart and Ashley leave the reader in a slightly removed position, well aware of their limited reading of characters and situations. That perspective is the source of much of the pleasure this novel will surely provide.
13-year-old Stewart is the first to admit he is a Genius, especially in Maths. Two or three years after his Mum has died of cancer, his Dad is moving in with Caroline, a colleague from work. The enforced move across the bay from Stewart’s old home in North Vancouver is one reason for leaving Little Genius Academy for the gifted; he’s also keen to attend the local High School, because Caroline’s daughter Ashley (just one year older) goes there, and he’s earnestly determined to bond with his new sister. Stewart is well aware his giftedness does not extend to social skills, but armed with the best of intentions and a 7-point TO DO list about getting involved in his new school (‘Try not to make those grunting sounds you’ve been told you make when you get bored or stressed’), he arrives with his cat Schrödinger at his new home to find it has five bathrooms (‘Every single human member of this household could go at the same time and there would still be a bathroom left over’). He’s ‘89.9 per cent happy’ with the new arrangements.
Ashley is like totally 110 per cent horrified. She’s not actually lost her Dad; it’s worse than that. He’s come out and what’s more he’s living in a house at the bottom of the garden. What’s even more, he’s found a partner, Michael, though even in her despair, Ashley can’t help but notice Michael’s flawless dark skin and his faultless dress sense. All of this, if it gets out, will like totally wreck her status as the school’s top fashionista. And now there’s this ‘midget-egghead-freakazoid’ Stewart, who actually talks to her when she’s with her friends at school. This will do nothing for her burgeoning relationship with basketball star Jared, the hottest guy around, recently arrived on campus, trailing clouds of mystery. ‘Rumour has it he was kicked out [from a private school], which makes him even more intriguing; according to this article I read in one of my magazines, women like a hint of mystery and possible danger in their men.’ Ashley’s narration is colourful, if uncertain. Her first chapter begins: ‘My family is FUBAR’ which unpacks as “’Effed Up Beyond All Recognition”. She’s a High School Mrs Malaprop – her ‘constipated’ is everyone else’s ‘emancipated’; and on a good day, she’s full of joie de beaver.
As Stewart finally tells her, Ashley lives in magazine-land. She’s all about Appearances – from clothes to cars to girlfriends. As for boyfriends, her first concern is how they’ll look together on the wedding photographs, followed by the trophy children they might breed. The plot races through crises at home and school, where Stewart becomes the furry-suited bulldog mascot for the basketball squad. The crunch comes – as it rather frequently does in suburban teenlit – at a drunken adult-free party where everything goes wrong. Stewart only just thwarts Jared’s predatory web-posting of revealing pix of a wasted Ashley. Little by little, the narrators see beyond each other’s surfaces. As Ashley becomes less ‘gayist’, she and her Dad get on much better. Stewart’s making progress too; Phoebe, a sane, perceptive girl from the Mathletes club, likes him for what he is. She even kisses him. And, ‘every now and then, Ashley and I have moments when we genuinely connect.’