Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Not sure how I discovered Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here (I swear I’d seen it discussed before I plucked it off my library’s shelves). The fanfic motif really works for me; I was looking for something to recapture the same goodness of Fangirl. Still, I have to admit I didn’t have high expectations—I’m not sure if it was the title, or the cover art, or whatever, but little about the book jumped out at me as memorable.
Any such reservations quickly fell away, however, as I began to enjoy the hell out of this novel. Anna Breslaw creates characters who are interesting and definitely memorable, and she does it in a way that feels authentic to teens who might read this, without feeling pandering. Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here has both a story and an atmosphere that I really like.
And, you know, it occurs to me that Scarlett Epstein might be the villain of this tale.
Somewhat uncharacteristically, not only does this review contain spoilers, but I’m going to start with a spoiler, because this was my favourite moment in the entire book. This is in the last third of the novel, after Ashley has stumbled on Scarlett’s RL-inspired fanfic. Scarlett has come upon Ashley, crying and smoking in the girls’ bathroom, and the two of them have one of the most honest exchanges in the entire book, and perhaps in their entire lives:
Her eyes are puffy and red. She looks right up at me. “Why do you think I’m so dumb? And don’t lie. I’ll know.”
“Because you’re mean to me.”
Perplexed, she wrinkles her nose, like I’ve put a rip in the space-time continuum. “You’re mean to me.”
“Um, yeah,” she sniffles, “because you think I’m a fucking moron.”
“And you convinced Avery I am too. She’s my sister! When you’re not around, we’re really close. But whenever you’re there, she acts different. You have your smart, special club, and I’m just a dumb Fembot idiot. Right?” She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, smearing her gold shadow.
“Even my parents like you more than me, even though I get straight As and your grades suck. They always talk about how shitty your mom is and how you deserve better, and what a smart, great kid you are. You come over for dinner, and they talk to you about books and stuff more than they ever talk to me about anything.”
Mean Girls is one of my favourite movies of all time, for so many reasons. It’s funny. It’s empathetic. But if you interpret Mean Girls merely as an indictment of the Regina Georges of the world, you’ve missed the point. There’s more going on there, a deeper conversation about school cliques, peer pressure, and the way we socialize girls into women and how it affects their relationships with men and with each other. One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when Cady finally realizes she has become the very thing she feared most; close seconds are when we realize that the Plastics, Regina included, are Plastics for a reason.
So my jaw just about hit the floor when I read this page (218–19), because Ashley kind of has a point. And I love it. I love that Breslaw takes this Mean Girl “dumb Fembot” and makes us, and Scarlett, see things from her perspective. Because, yes, Ashley is horrible to Scarlett in so many ways—but that’s not inherent to Ashley’s personality. I feel like if we champion YA novels that merely pit the “outsider” against the “popular kids,” we’re only going half way. It’s much more important to challenge the entire premise of the system and build empathy.
No, Scarlett isn’t the villain here. But she isn’t the hero either. Real life doesn’t have Mary Sues.
I also love that Breslaw totally foreshadows Ashley’s little moment earlier in the book through Scarlett's OC fanfic and her friends’ commentary:
DavidaTheDeadly: this could be such a great character arc for both of them: gideon helps ashbot realize her worth, ashbot helps gideon not take everything so effing seriously…
Scarface: Guys, she’s a robot.
MorwennaWraith: That’s not what John would do. He’d make her better than the sum of her parts, LITERALLY
Scarface: But, like … maybe she’s just a robot. You know.
DavidaTheDeadly: um … no? what do you mean? if that’s true, who’s gideon’s otp?
It’s not meta I guess, but Breslaw’s intertextual game is strong here. As with Fangirl, this book definitely uses the phenomenon of fanfiction both to drive the plot and to emphasize important themes. In particular, Breslaw uses these characters to smack Scarlett down whenever she’s getting too full of herself (i.e., the time she literally writes in a literal Mary Sue literally named Scarlett). I love me some foils.
(I wasn’t much into the fanfic itself. However, one of the hallmarks of a great writer is the ability to write badly on purpose, which Breslaw pulls off here in spades—I mean, Scarlett’s writing and sense of narrative is sophisticated for a teenager and about on par with where I was when I posted stuff to Fanfiction.net and FictionPress.com, but it’s pretty silly. But I appreciate the purpose it all serves, and Breslaw’s attention to authentically replicating the interactions Scarlett has within this community makes it even better.)
In keeping with this theme that Scarlett Must Realize Hers is Not a Privileged Point of View, the narrative keeps poking her and reminding her that other characters actually have lives and desires and drives beyond how they relate to her. Consider: Dawn, Scarlett’s dad, and Ruth. On the one hand, all three characters somewhat embody semi-stable tropes of the contemporary YA novel: the somewhat irresponsible, impoverished single mom; the semi-absent father figure who treats his daughter more like an idea than a person; the rebellious wise old woman who flouts authority. On the other hand, each of these characters belies those stereotypes and begs Scarlett, and us, to understand their actions from their perspectives. And each time Scarlett stops to consider how they think, she becomes a more complex person herself:
It’s funny. This whole time I thought I hated Dawn’s boyfriends because she seemed to spend more time dating them than she did with me, but now I realize I just hated them because I never saw them make her look like that.
Scarlett develops more empathy for her mother’s perspective. Or, for her father:
There are a lot of things I could say to him. Like: Yeah, you were devastated when you got a book deal. You were devastated when it got optioned by a major movie studio. And you were really devastated in that online magazine profile that included glossy photos of your apartment and your new wife and daughter, in which I was not mentioned once. But if I’ve learned anything this week, it’s that life is short.
“You're not a good writer,” I say and then walk away.
Oooooooooh. Ice. Cold. I guess that one isn’t so much empathy as bitterness—then again, you don’t have to agree with someone’s point of view to understand it.
On the subject of Scarlett and her father, I just want to add that I’m happy with the way Breslaw gradually fleshes out that dynamic. At first when Scarlett mentions her dad in a way that implies he’s not around, I jump wildly to various conclusions: is he dead? a deadbeat? So I was pleased when we learn that she actually has a good relationship with him: “I brush that off, insisting that I’ll send one soon, but all the while a warm, loved feeling creeps up behind my rib cage like ivy.” (That simile tho!) True, he profits off a hyperbolic autobiographical version of her in his novel, and he clearly doesn’t understand her—Scarlett’s distaste for The Corrections earned her a free pass from me for all past, present, and future indiscretions—but what father does understand his teenaged daughter?
Even thinking about it now, as I leaf through the book in search of these quotes, is bringing back memories of what I felt while reading it—I love that. As I went into it, I prepared myself for the worst, worrying that Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here would be long on buzzwords and teen culture nomenclature and short on, you know, actual substance or plot. Nothing is further from the truth: this is an enduring story, its main character funny but flawed, and her antics relatable but oh-so-cringe-worthy at times.
Let’s finish up by talking about sex!
Two of the best YA books I’ve read this year (Asking for It, by Louise O’Neill, and All the Rage, by Courtney Summers) have been fairly heavy books, and they were both heavy because of their portrayals of rape and rape culture. I think one reason I’m so happy with Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here is that it reassured me I can love a YA novel that isn’t doom and gloomy—there is plenty of room for all sorts of amazing fiction, and even if Scarlett isn’t dealing with existential threats to her body and psyche, her problems are no less real or important.
While sex doesn’t figure as heavily into this book as some of my other YA reads for the year, it is still present. Scarlett talks about it, struggles with writing it for her own fic. Discusses the “bases” and their lack of standardization with Avery. (Avery is the best. Would totally ship Scarvery ace OTP if all those raging hormones were not canon!) Almost has it with Gideon, but then doesn’t. And it’s this last one I want to highlight, because yes indeedy, we have a sex-positive portrayal of a boy understanding consent:
He takes his hands off me and lies on the floor, facing up and breathing shallowly. I stay on my back, also staring up at the ceiling.
“I, um, I can’t.”
I’m trying to sound nonplussed, like I have almost-sex with guys all the time and coolly stop short because I am playing hard to get.
“No worries! Like, not at all,” Gideon says, now sounding vaguely panicked. “I—I mean, did I go too fast? Or did I do something you didn’t want me to do?”
As amazing as Asking for It and All the Rage and all these other books about rape and rape culture are, it’s just as important that YA depicts what we want our society to be. And here we have an amazing example: consent must be enthusiastic and must be ongoing. It’s not enough that Scarlett just goes along with the making out: she revokes consent, tells Gideon to stop. And—this is the key—he does. He stops, and he doesn’t try to shame her or blame he or make her feel bad.
That, alone, would be wonderful. All teenage boys should be reading scenes like this so they see examples of how they should behave. I don’t know how many boys will read Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here, gendered assumptions of audience in our marketing and all that (but that is another conversation). At the very least, however, girls reading this book get to see how boys should behave, get some antidote to the noxious messages our media send telling them they should just “accept” whatever boys are doing to their bodies.
Yet look at that last line: “did I do something you didn’t want me to do?” Not only does Gideon stop when asked, but he initiates a dialogue about them having sex. So much of the portrayal of sex in our fiction focuses on the act, on the hot-and-heavy hormones and lusts. Breslaw includes that, sure, but this scene also reminds us that sex should be about consent and communication among the people involved. Gideon stops, and they talk about how to proceed—eventually they decide, nope, no sex today. No harm, no foul. It’s an extremely positive way of modelling how teenagers can go about exploring sex in a safe way.
It would have been so easy for me to pass on Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here; you have no idea how close I came. I’m really glad I didn’t, and you shouldn’t either. It’s a debut novel, and it’s by no means perfect—there are shoals and shallows in the plot, minor momentary quirks of character. But the mistakes it makes are its own, and meanwhile, it is incredibly successful in all of the ways I’ve described above.
Now, if you excuse me, this book has reminded me it has been entirely too long since I watched Mean Girls….