Let’s get one thing straight: I am absolutely a Non Pratt fangirl, so if this review sounds a little too gushing, that’s because it is. Pratt’s books are a rich, tasty dessert to me: eminently satisfying, far longer-lasting than candy, and sometimes even a little bit good—but not too good—for you. Second Best Friend is no exception. Like Unboxed, their previous novella from Barrington Stoke, Second Best Friend is an encapsulated, somewhat brief story about a specific point in time. Whereas Unboxed was about four friends dealing with the loss of a fifth, this story is about friend almost losing another to an envy that might be all in her imagination. It’s real; it’s raw, but it’s also deeply humorous and forgiving.
Protagonist Jade is good, but she feels like everyone compares her to her best friend, Becky, and that she always comes out second. Becky is prettier; Becky is smarter; Becky is more responsible; Becky is basically just better than Jade and always will be. When Jade’s break-up with her boyfriend backfires and triggers a crisis in confidence centred on Becky, Jade throws herself into a school election campaign. She winds up competing with her own best friend (because that always goes well). While dealing with the perhaps-wanted attentions of her campaign manager, Jade mulls over her feelings about Becky. How does one improve one’s sense of self-worth when one only compares oneself to perfection?
Second Best Friend works so well for two reasons. Firstly, Pratt carefully and compellingly builds the case for Jade’s perspective. From dinners with her own family to differences in Instagram likes to teachers picking Becky over Jade for solo parts, we see, from Jade’s POV, the injustice of the situation. And what’s so frustrating for her—and therefore, by extension, us—is that Becky doesn’t mean for any of this to happen. Becky is not the bad guy here; she is not an antagonist we can plot against, undermine, or take down. The bad guy is Jade’s own self-esteem—and that proves to be a much bigger boss fight.
The second reason this book works is because it’s really easy to identify with Jade’s feelings on the matter. They’re a kind of version of imposter syndrome. I don’t necessarily have any one friend whom I’d consider too perfect (no, sorry, not even you, real-life Becky). But I think it’s a very common experience to see other friends excelling in fields you are passionate in, and to worry that you will never measure up. Milieus like Instagram and other social media platforms, where eyeballs and self-worth are measured in likes, only compound this problem. We could try to dismiss this as the particular hang-up of “young people” who are too “obsessed” with their online image, but that ignores the messages we send—particularly to young girls—about how you’re only valuable if people are looking at you.
I also appreciate how Pratt never really pushes the story over the top. Even Jade’s betrayal of one of Becky’s darkest secrets is, really, rather tame. Truth or Dare is predicated upon some pretty heavy guilt regarding someone jumping off a bridge and suffering a traumatic brain injury as a result. In contrast, Jade exposing something Becky did as a young child is embarrassing but not life-altering—and Pratt plays it that way. This is a betrayal not because of how it affects Becky’s social standing but because of the way it alters Becky’s ability to trust, implicitly, her best friend. It’s a deeply personal action and a deeply personal consequence, and I love the way Pratt portrays that against the backdrop of this ultimately unimportant school election.
(As an aside, I discovered some latent PTSD-like flashbacks to my days teaching in England while reading this. The students at this school are way too into this social responsibility class and planning this election. I remember my days of being a form tutor and dreading the SMSC topics we were somehow supposed to cover in the ten minutes we had each morning, while my students just looked at me with an apathy bordering on pity and or disgust. Oof. There were many lovely students I taught and many excellent classes, but I do not miss that particular dimension of teaching in England!)
Without going into spoilers, let me just say that the ending is extremely abrupt. Even physically reading this book and knowing there were only a few pages left, I still kind of did a double-take when I turned the page and realized that I was done. And I love it. Once that shock wore off, I thought it was a perfect way to conclude the story. Because it offers this sliver of hope—for redemption, reconciliation, recapitulation—without collapsing the waveform of our own glorious imaginations as to how, exactly, that might be achieved. It’s like ending the romantic comedy just as the one love interest walks back in the door. You don’t necessarily know how it ends, but you can fill in the blanks yourself.
Also, I read Becky as aromantic- and/or asexual-spectrum. On page 10, Jade mentions, “The truth is that Becky’s not up for it with anyone”. (There are also indications that Becky might be a little touch-averse.) The words aren’t used on page like they were for the character of Seren in Truth or Dare, and it’s never really explored any further than that. This is understandable, given the length of the story, though I do wish that we reach a point where we can throw out words like aromantic and asexual in passing and not have to digress to define them.
For my closing thoughts I want to spend a little time complimenting both Pratt’s writing in general and the construction of this book itself. Barrington Stoke just publishes these lovely little editions. The covers are fantastic (and shiny!) but the paper. Oh wow, the paper is just such high quality. And the typeface! I’m not necessarily a die-hard typography nerd, but I respect it, and the book designers here outdid themselves. Reading this book is an exercise in self-care. And the design only serves to enhance and complement Pratt’s writing, which is deliciously descriptive, evocative, and entertaining. From cute turns of phrase like “a boy so hot he should be measured on the Scoville scale” to descriptions of a teacher dressing like an ASOS ad to supporting characters with defining, but not stereotypical, traits, Second Best Friend might have been a shorter read for me, but it was predictably a great one.
That’s about it. Non Pratt keeps coming up with new and different stories, and as long as that is the case, I will keep trying to come up with new and different things to say about them. But really all I want to say is that if you haven’t read any of her books yet, you should pick one up. There are several, and even if some of them don’t sound right for you, I’d like to bet at least one will. And above all else, I’m excited that voices like Pratt’s are out there, awaiting young adult readers who might be wondering if everyone experiences feelings of envy, of second-bestism, of impostership if it’s just them. (Spoiler alert: it’s not just you.)