During my participation in Bout of Books 8.0 and the Dog Days of Summer Marathon, I decided to revisit Jessica Darling in the series of books written by Megan McCafferty in the early 2000s – a reread of the first three installments Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, Charmed Thirds, and finishing out the series with Fourth Comings and Perfect Fifths.
The first two books chronicle Jessica Darling’s life in Pineville, NJ during her sophomore and junior years of high school. The books start immediately after her best friend Hope moved across country to Tennessee due to a tragic event due to the death of her older brother, Heath. Now best friend-less, Jessica is trying to navigate the waters of a high school where she feels like an outsider and fit in with a family that all seem to get along without her. During her post-Hope depression, Jessica encounters Marcus Flutie in seemingly harmless episodes until an event that occurs at the end of book one, which forges an awkward and unspoken relationship between them. The first two books wouldn't be complete without the cast of characters that inhabits Pineville: The Clueless Crew, Scotty, Len Levy (Jessica’s first heartbreak), Paul Parlipiano, Jessica’s parents and much older sister Bethany.
Rereading Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings was like stepping back into my own 15 year old body. The wear and tear imparted on my copies of these books clearly show I have read them more than 2 or 3 times and I revisited them frequently throughout high school. Jessica is an extremely flawed character – hyper observant to the point of judgmental, her friends cannot escape the mental stereotypes she applies to them (and herself). She blames her inability to fit in with friends/family on everyone when her own malaise and anxiety are what causes the separation. Jessica’s honest portrayal of high school made her seem so real, her emotions were tangible and the confusion of where she fit in with school, friends, and family made her relate-able in a way that most authors cannot communicate with their readers. These qualities made me pick the book up time and time again.
Another portion of the books that I loved, more for nostalgia than anything else, are the pop culture references McCafferty makes during the time period (2000-2003). Mentions of TRL and MTV’s Spring Break specials instantly time warped me back to middle and high school and watching these programs play out on TV.
Compared to the first two books, Charmed Thirds was a let down for me. This books chronicles Jessica's senior year of high school through all four years of college at Columbia University. It's written in season blocks, rather than months, so it was like a drive by of her college years rather than the daily insights and issues Jessica faced in high school. While this allowed the book to span five years in just under 400 pages, it also disconnected Jessica from the reader. The witty banter that made the first two books was still present in Charmed Thirds, so the reading experience was enjoyable, but other elements of the book made it a flop.
The worst part of the book was the lack of personal growth. There was no discernible difference in Jessica's personality or outlook on life, peers, school or family from the first two books. Now, Jessica's negative disposition on life ends up being annoying rather than angst-y. This, coupled with the bizarre on again-off again relationship with Marcus, made the book disappointed. I felt like this book was a bridge between adolescent and adult life for Jessica and I would have been thoroughly disappointed if I had known there were not two more books to potentially redeem the story line.
Sloppy Firsts was published in 2001 by Broadway Books, Second Helpings was published in 2003 by Three Rivers Press, and Charmed Thirds was published in 2007 by Broadway Books.