SimonPulse emblazoned the front cover of Deb Caletti’s THE SIX RULES OF MAYBE with an SLJ blurb comparing it to the best of Dessen, and a glance at the back shows that all of Caletti’s books have Dessen-esque covers in overall look even if they lack the emphasis on disembodied body parts.
“Their marketing strategy is to trick you into thinking you’re buying a Sarah Dessen book,” I told Emily (we were at Books of Wonder; I’d never read Caletti). “Works for me.”
And I know why the SLJ blurb said that: it’s that narrative mix of emotional over-articulation, rendered in very deliberate, almost trite, imagery, blended with quick and astringent judgment, so you understand right away that the smart girl who’s narrating is knowing and wry, but not so knowing and wry that she doesn’t think her high school experiences are worth metaphors. And it’s that cadence where the sentences come long and then short, like it’s all flowing out of that girl faster than she can control until she’s pulled up short by her own realizations. I thought nobody did sentence-level pacing like Dessen; Caletti sure comes close. Well. It’s tone and pacing and character fused, because it always adds up to a girl who is looking, looking, looking, and wanting, and there’re reasons why these books, despite their fundamental similarity, never get old for me.
So that’s all to the good, and Caletti maybe isn’t edited as well — multiple passages, especially early, feel overwritten in a way that Dessen rarely does — but at her best she’s quotable as hell in the way of Meg Rosoff or John Green.
But I actually think Caletti does the big picture better than Dessen usually does, and it’s because she lets her protagonist fail harder. Here’s the core piece of my favorite scene:
I wanted to open that smile up wider, to see the Hayden of the afternoon back again. But I suddenly couldn’t think of anything else to say, and the smile was retreating. He was retreating. I could feel the moment of connectedness passing, my chance being lost. I wanted to play and volley and be back in that place we had been together before, that great place. I needed something, something quick — I grasped and caught something silly and lighthearted. Silly and lighthearted would do.
“So, Hayden Renfrew. What was your most embarrassing moment?”
It sounded workable until I said it. As soon as the words slipped out I knew I had done something horribly and terribly wrong. A humiliating misstep. I felt it all in one second of pause. The night, the cigarette smoke lingering in the air, the heaviness of his thoughts — my words were inappropriate and idiotic. Oh God, why had I said that? Why, why, why? And why couldn’t you take back a moment sometimes? One little moment? Is that asking so much? God, I suddenly sounded thirteen. My red shorts and my white tank top felt young and shameful, my feet in my flip-flops did too. I felt so ashamed of my painted toenails in the streetlight.
The rest of that scene and what comes of it is perfect. And you can see everything here: that Dessen probably would’ve written this scene better, with more economy and precision (and certainly less pleading*), but also that probably she wouldn’t have written this scene, because while each of her characters is allotted her one emotional failing to work through by the book’s end, their humiliations are never really their own. They get humiliated by their mothers or their sisters or their boyfriends’ mothers, but not by their own sudden recognition of their immaturity. That’s what Caletti gets right. She gets growing up, the way it feels to look with contempt (long before affection) at where you’re coming out of, and the way you mostly can’t see very clearly what you might become, and when you do glimpse it it might be with shame and terror.
There was that whole dust-up last year about how dark YA can be, and I always figured that books in the Dessen genre, serious subjects though they all have, were imagined as the counterpoint. But maybe if you do it right, if you let the characters fail and flounder in the humiliation that they made themselves — if you don’t just let your characters feel inadequate, but you let them actually be inadequate to what’s ahead of them — then this little corner of YA can be darker, and richer, than it seems.
* I mean, that’s really pretty awful, right?