The Popularity Rules by Abby McDonald

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The Popularity Rules by Abby McDonald

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Feminist music journalist Kat Elliot submits to a total makeover by old friend Lauren to re-track her career. A very entertaining story that starts as formatted chick-lit, but doesn't come up with the usual conclusions. Contains sex, drugs and rock 'n roll in moderate doses, so maybe not for tweenies.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 474 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 978-0099533894

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This book is labelled as Abby McDonald's first adult novel, but a brief browse at the juvenile title, cover and formatted content bowls it straight down the teen read alley. The Americanised language, music scene setting and media heroine are aspirational stuff when you're stuck in the pre-scene years. So, despite its label, I've given it four and a half stars based on its appeal as a girlie book. That said, I'm well over eighteen, read the story avidly, and enjoyed the irony. So well done, Abby McDonald, for an entertaining story, cleverly told.

The novel starts as Kat Elliot, the moody anti-heroine, loses her job on a music paper. Hardly surprising, since: The general opinion is that you're … an argumentative, objectionable, feminist bitch ... When no other opportunities grab her, she agrees to change her life, mentored by her old school mate. Lauren was converted to the Popularity Rules as a American teenager at summer camp, which caused a breakdown in their friendship ten years ago. But hey, look where it's got Lauren now, a successful businesswoman with a golden life style in London to suit. Kat plunges into a total makeover of her physical, mental and emotional self and embarks on a new, exciting and successful career whirl.

Fortunately the author insets panels of wisdom at the beginning of each chapter, so that readers can share the Popularity Rules' fascinating little nuggets, such as:

… Once you're popular, you can show your ruthless side, but until then, act like a Texan Beauty Queen and be Miss Congeniality at all times.

And: … you're the one screwing things up, and as long as you keep playing the victim and whining about everyone else, you'll never get what you want … start thinking about the choices you make, because there's one thing for sure, and that is you're not doing it right.

Not to mention: … If you're going to be the one running things, you can't slack off. Discipline, self-control – you haven't shown much of these so far, but get with the program. Sometimes it takes the most work for the most frivolous things.

Pragmatically, there is more than a grain of sense in these 'rules', even though they're supposed to be satirical. I can imagine suddenly-peaceful homes and classrooms as readers experiment with the advice.

There are several thought-provoking issues to interest teenage girls. How far are you prepared to bend your principles for financial success? Is it possible to fit into society and still be your own person? Kat is an Oxford graduate, with a feminist lecturer mother; the storyline explores the tension in their expectations of one another. There's also a suggestion that Lauren and Kat might move towards a lesbian relationship after the book ends.

Kat and Lauren ultimately reject self-advancement in favour of remaining true to their principles, which balances out the cynicism of the Rules. For me, the only problematic area is some disparaging assumptions about men:

Boys are simple: they want sex. Men are just the same: they want sex and power.

Don't ever forget it or be charmed into thinking you're special, because they're putting on an act too, and you'll be left crying in the end ...

This gender stereotype is being drip-fed to young women in the rules and reinforced by a storyline procession of unsatisfactory men. Oh, it's that old hegemonic discourse dressed up as entertainment. And I thought we were aiming at respectful partnership these days, not disempowering every male on the planet. I even found myself wondering if the author would consider being so disparaging about an ethnic minority group.

This is Abby McDonald's second book. Her teen novel, Sophomore Switch, about Oxford and University of California students exchanging, looks just as entertaining. At only 24, I think she should stay with the exciting young adult world while she's switched on to its language and aspirations. With so many productive years ahead, writing for boring old adults can wait for a bit.

My thanks to Arrow Books for sending The Popularity Rules. We also have a review of The Liberation of Alice Love by Abby McDonald.

If you want something a little more adult but still with a message, Tatiana Boncompagni's recently published Hedge Fund Wives is excellent, within the genre, as is Katie Fforde's Wedding Season. Other stories set in the young adult world are Chris Manby's Crazy in Love or Melissa Nathan's The Nanny. At the younger end, Laura Ruby's Good Girls, Suzanne Bugler's Meet me at the Boathouse and Chris Higgins' A Perfect Ten might appeal. Each and every one of them was very well received, here at The Bookbag.

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Abby McDonald said:

Thanks for the review - I'm glad you enjoyed the book!

I had to write re: your comment on gender stereotyping. As you already point out, the Rules themselves are designed to be bitchy and Machiavellian, with a note of satire, so I certainly wasn't looking to perpetuate any 'disempowering' gender norms through their advice - simply a heartless world-view that obviously has its limits in real-world application. As for the procession of disappointing men; it felt true to Kat's story given that 'scene' and my own experiences in it for her to encounter these kinds of underwhelming relationships, but I did try to raise the point of whether it was her own expectations and defensive behaviour that brought about the eventual end of various relationships, not just the men's failures. But I will agree, the overall picture isn't a particularly uplifting one - which is sadly often the case, especially in your twenties :) For my next adult novel, however, I have made a point of making it my 'book of good men', so it's certainly not a dominant theme in my work!

You/ your readers might be pleased to know that in addition to Sophomore Switch, I have two more YA books scheduled: 'Boys, Bear & A Serious Pair of Hiking Boots' in April 2010, and then 'The Anti-Prom' in 2011. My next adult novel is currently untitled, but will also be published in 2010, in July.

x Abby

Trish replied:

I think modern men get a really raw deal these days; they just can’t win however hard they try. Fair enough for the Rules to be lampooning teen novels and men, based on your own experiences. I’d expect many young people to be able to pick out satire in their reading. Reinforcing negative stereotyping with not one reasonable male in such clever, well-written chick-lit, stands in danger of setting up negative expectations of men in impressionable readers.

I’m not in my teens or twenties, so it seemed more appropriate to come at this novel from the point of view of a parent. I commented on the possible Lesbian interpretation and the overly negative view of males, since some parents might want to know that, ready to discuss either issue with younger readers. My own view as a parent and ex-English teacher, is that I strongly support both your artistic freedom and young people developing discrimination through a completely free choice of reading.

I’ll look forward to reading Boys, Bears and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots: it’s a great title.