Review of The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting by Holly Bourne
The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting
by Holly Bourne
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I rang in 2017 with a Holly Bourne, so I was hoping to wait until the New Year to read this. But Thursday saw me feeling a little down—not in any serious way, but just in the sense that I wanted a book that wouldn’t be too sad. Bourne’s writing, despite involving sensitive issues—in this case, bullying, sexual harassment/assault, and self-harm and attempted suicide (trigger warning: I will discuss these later)—always puts me in a better mood. She has this way of buoying you, of making you feel hopeful even as she portrays adolescents at the nadir of their experiences. So I opened up The Manifesto on How to be Interesting, figuring I would read the first few chapters in the bath, then knit and watch a movie for the rest of the evening. I should have known better: I ended up reading nearly two-thirds of the book that night and finished it early the next morning.
Bree begins this book as a self-professed “loser” whose obsession with writing and disappointment over her rejections clouds her enjoyment of her college (A-Level) years. A comment from her English teacher gives her the idea to start an anonymous blog, titled the same as this book, and completely change her look, behaviour, and attitude in an effort to become more “interesting”. Bree’s alterations will have her growing closer to her mom, at least superficially, and befriending the Popular Girls at her school—but she will alienate her best friend, make decisions she will come to regret, and sacrifice her core beliefs, all in the name of experiencing enough that she might finally write something “good”.
Bourne perfectly captures the particular brand of desperation that follows you around in adolescence. This is not the same desperation that those of us in our late twenties feel—that ticking clock of “Wait, is this all there is? I haven’t even figured out my life yet! Oh God, don’t tell me I need to do grad school to get a real job!” No, this is a fresher sense of desperation; it still has that new-hormone smell. Bree needs to be published, needs to be recognized, needs to be interesting. It’s a conflict created by her internal ambition trying to express itself in a world that, sadly, often tells teenagers to sit down and shut up—or encourages them to funnel their self-expression into acceptable, muted, channelled avenues.
On the surface, Bree’s journey into the land of pretty and popular follows the trajectory of numerous other, similar stories: she gets herself a makeover, shows up at school a Whole New Girl™, knocks the socks off everyone, and slides into the Popular Girls clique. She takes on a new persona—kind of, though she’s allowing herself little breathers by helping her English teacher with the Year 8 creative writing club. She collects as much material as possible and begins to formulate the “rules” that make up her manifesto, the ways in which to live in order to ensure maximum Life Experience and therefore, hopefully, maximum interesting writing.
Dig deeper, though, and that’s where The Manifesto on How to be Interesting really gets … well … interesting. Bourne is here to remind us that all those stock characters in the books and movies like this one are actually, when you dig down, real people. Bree’s mom isn’t aloof—she’s confused and conflicted about her daughter’s teenage reticence to bond, and until Bree asks her to go shopping, has no idea how to talk to her daughter. Jassmine, Jessica, Gemma, and Emily aren’t plastic bitch-queens-in-training: they’re girls Bree’s own age, just as human and damaged as she is, just coping with it differently.
The best and rawest moments of this book are when Bree has a heart-to-heart with the least likely of people. For example, when she and Jassmine are preparing for a party, and the latter discovers Bree’s cut marks on her thighs, Jassmine confesses to her own type of self-harm. It’s a significant, genuine moment undercut by the dramatic irony of Bree deceiving Jassmine when it comes to the reasons behind their newfound friendship. Bourne has a knack for depicting teenagers’ behaviours in interesting, dynamic, and accurate ways. From the interactions among the girls to the posturing of Hugo or the actual meanness beneath his exterior, Bourne shows us the myriad ways in which teenagers are constantly re-evaluating their relationships with one another.
As a high school teacher myself, I have to confess I found the relationship between Bree and Mr. Fellows difficult to read at the best of times. This is not a criticism of Bourne for including it; she definitely portrays it the way it should be portrayed. I just hate subplots involving teacher–student relationships … I kept yelling at the book as I watched these two characters orbit each other, Bree enjoying the attention, Fellows acting like a creepy, skeevy man who shouldn’t be allowed near children.
And then we reach the climax and what, as I’m coming to realize, is Bourne’s hallmark: everything goes pear-shaped. In this particular case, Bree reaches a point where the only recourse seems to be to begin cutting again, and she takes it too far and nearly kills herself. She doesn’t, though, of course, because this is not that kind of book. She wakes up in a hospital, under careful watch—and her parents and her live happily-ever-after, and everything is fine. Except it isn’t, because this is not that kind of book either.
No, this is the brilliance of Bourne and the reason I keep reading her books: she finds a middle way. She finds this hopeful path through the dark forest, and it feels very true. Bree is not automatically going to be All Right now that she has had her crisis moment. Nor is she totally lost. There is a darkness in The Manifesto on How to be Interesting, but there is also so much compassion and empathy. There is a message reminding us that even in those moments of absolute loss, there is still hope. But we have to fight for it. And when we are too weak or tired of fighting, we have to be willing to let those who care about us in, so they can fight on our behalf.
At over 400 pages, this is a pretty long book. But it moves so fast, and it is so fascinating, and it is so good, that you will probably inhale it like I did. The Manifesto on How to be Interesting is just another example of why I love Bourne’s work and will keep picking up her stuff, hopefully for years to come.
Oh, and pat on the back for making it through this entire review without a Mean Girls comparison!