By Katy Goodwin-Bates
When I consider the membership of my fictional squad of super-snarky teen misanthropes with impeccable taste in music (something I am confident everyone does regularly, right?), I can now add Scarlett Epstein to the list. The heroine of Anna Breslaw’s debut novel fits perfectly alongside Juno, Mim from David Arnold’s Mosquitoland, and my spiritual soulmate, Daria. It was the reference to the last of these in Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here‘s pre-release publicity which drove me to click ‘pre-order,’ and it turns out the epithet is entirely merited.
Melville, New Jersey, is the perfect place to have a pretty mediocre life for, like, seventy years and then die. In fact, that might be on the WELCOME TO MELVILLE sign you see when you get off the turnpike at Exit 6A, right about population: 5,500 EMPTY FUNYUNS BAGS, 1 BORED JEWISH GIRL. (page 7)
Breslaw’s novel begins with Scarlett suffering a devastating blow: the cancellation of her favorite TV show. Lycanthrope High, with some obvious tongue-in-cheek appropriation of Teen Wolf, Supernatural, and Twilight, is more than just a viewing experience for Scarlett; it’s her main source of interaction (albeit online) with other humans, through forums and fanfiction. In a similar vein to Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Breslaw taps into the culture of fanfic to demonstrate Scarlett’s social isolation, but also the creative capability the character cannot see within herself. In addition to her mainstream entertainment drama, Scarlett has a dysfunctional relationship with her single mother, as well as a continuing affection for Gideon, the childhood best friend from whom she has drifted apart.
If this all sounds pretty par for the course for contemporary YA, it’s important to point out how much Scarlett’s unique voice helps the novel maintain a sense of difference. A trend I’m thrilled to see emerging in YA fiction is the use of feminism as a plot-driver; in the UK, Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club trilogy is flying the flag, and Scarlett Epstein does the same for American YA. Scarlett’s friendship with elderly Ruth begins as a school history project, but develops into a source of much feminist theorizing and this feeds into Scarlett’s continuing fiction writing, which has a very Stepford theme. Ruth is one of the best bits of the book; although her first major act is to convince Scarlett to buy her some weed, her previous life as a professor of women’s studies means she has plenty of insight to offer Scarlett and the reader, leading the protagonist to condemn the patriarchy at regular intervals.
Sometimes my entire high school experience feels like being the only one who already knows the end of a movie, when everyone else you’re going with is so excited to see how the movie will end. Spoiler alert: a 20 percent discount at Target. (page 113)
Although there’s romance and the whole surviving high school theme here, the main point of Scarlett Epstein is the way in which Scarlett’s character develops. There’s no miracle moment when her personality fundamentally changes, but the moments when she learns to lower her sarcastic defenses are realistic and effective. Scarlett’s relationship with her mother is particularly well-executed. Dawn isn’t a textbook YA terrible mother, but she shows understandable failings, namely poor taste in boyfriends and an unwillingness to dress in an age-appropriate manner. Scarlett’s unfiltered sarcasm occasionally makes both her mum and the reader wince, and this rang particularly true for this reader, whose default setting tends to be “slightly too harsh for conventional levels of sensitivity.” Despite the old adage that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, I firmly believe that it’s also the funniest, and Scarlett’s exasperated narrative contains plenty of witty lines, my favourite being her attitude to inexplicably popular stadium rock bands:
“I know it’s been a really long time since we hung out, but I think we still, you know, we like the same stuff, and we’re both…”
The look in his eyes stops me, like I was about to say “serial killers” or “Coldplay fans.” Shit. (page 35)
As with the aforementioned Mosquitoland, your enjoyment of Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is inevitably going to depend on your perspective on Scarlett’s occasionally caustic commentary. I recognized much of her internal monologue as matching my own and consequently relished my time with Scarlett. At just under 300 pages, Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is a quick read as well as an entertaining one, and I’ll be recommending it.
Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is available now at Greenville Public Library.