A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“The following facts ARE important.Your mum has to qualify for the “brain drain”. Or your dad has to, I suppose, but that doesn’t apply in my case – my dad left my brilliant mum for Kelly so is certifiably brainless….Then you need an accent that makes everyone stop and stare at you. Most of these people should say, “I just LOVE your accent.” Any old accent will do, don’t worry. My accent is from Boringtown, Boring County, England, and it’s worked well for me. I suppose you could pretend to have an exotic accent, one that isn’t your real accent, but inventing things isn’t always the best way to go. You’ll see what I mean about that later.
And then – and this is what makes the accent thing work – you need to move to the United States of America.”
Lisa: Jo leaves ‘ Boringtown’, England, for Boston, Massachusetts, and is faced with the prospect of integrating into an American high school. No mean feat. On her first day, after being snubbed by an unfriendly goth girl called Rachel, Jo is invited to a party by the popular, pretty gal set. Decked out in a revealing designer outfit provided by the rich and well-meaning Tori, Jo becomes the centre of attention. She is the English girl with the ‘cute accent’ and ‘European style’ and she soon finds herself in a cupboard snogging Jake Matthews – the hottest boy in the school. At this point, Jo splits in two: Jo the Nerd, and Josie the Cool. Jo the Nerd slaps Jake and tells him that he needs to learn to respect women – social suicide as far as the popular crowd is concerned. Jo leaves the party and although she is horribly upset and determined to return to England, Jo eventually befriends Rachel, David and Kendis, who are interesting, ‘alternative’ outsiders. Josie the Cool, on the other hand, tolerates Jake Matthews and his persistent groping, and becomes his girlfriend, a move that Josie hopes will secure her popularity.
Lisa: For me, the messages in Split by a Kiss are its strength. The ‘be yourself’ and ‘stand up for yourself’ messages are important, but I was most impressed by the idea that: ‘whatever happens, it’s really not that big a deal’ – something that I wish I’d learned sooner as a teenager. SBAK made me remember how it felt to be at school, and all the times I’d experienced (what felt like) the worst humiliation in the world, those mortifying episodes that I would torture myself with for months, years! SBAK reminded me how as a teen I never realised that everyone else soon forgot my social faux pas, or were never really particularly bothered in the first place. The message of ‘there is no right or wrong – just live your life!’ is a message worth hearing at any stage. The book is stronger because it doesn’t say, ‘this is the correct path’, or ‘this is the incorrect decision’ – the fact that Jo and Josie both end up in the same position with the same person was, I think, an excellent decision by the author. Both Josie and Jo have their highs and lows. Likewise, Josie’s friend Tori comes to the same conclusion in each narrative.
But more than anything SBAK is hopeful. So much pressure is put on teens to do the right thing, succeed, not screw up their future, pass exams, have the right friends, but SBAK demonstrates how the mistakes can be just as important as the triumphs, and that however you mess up, it doesn’t really matter – things are rarely catastrophic.
Leena: ‘Whatever happens, it’s really not that big a deal’ – yes, exactly! Even when your mistakes are somewhat bigger than spilling food all over yourself in front of the boy you fancy, it’s really not the end of the world. And if you find yourself behaving in ways that don’t reflect your true character, well, you can always change that and chalk it up to experience.
When I started reading, I was at first slightly worried this might turn out to be a Mean Girls type of set-up, where the cool kids are all either bad or spineless, and the ‘nerds’ have all the intelligence and critical judgement between them. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case with SBAK at all. Without giving any spoilers, the ‘outsiders’ do not have the moral high ground – they’ve got their own set of flaws and blind spots – and the problem with the ‘in crowd’ isn’t that they’re catty by nature and judge everybody by the clothes they wear. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between – and has to do with the choices of the individuals.
For me, the messages in the book were all the more effective for not reading like messages, as such. I loved the book for its characters and humour. I found myself laughing most heartily at the parts that felt most true. The best way to get a message across, if you ask me! As for the characters, with the possible exceptions of Jake and Chelsea, who felt a bit stereotypical, all of them, minor and major, had distinctive personalities – the abrasive Rachel, the swoon-worthy Albie, and Jo’s wonderful mother, just to name a few. Jo herself was a perfectly drawn heroine: strong without quite realising her own strength of character. But I loved the character of Tori in particular: she is unashamedly superficial, overly fashion-conscious, not particularly clever or ‘fascinating’ in the manner of David and Rachel, but she’s good-natured and fun and appreciates Jo for what she is – the kind of girl, in short, that one would love to have as a friend.
I particularly liked that there is a feminist core to the book, and also to Jo and Josie – neither girl bows to the pressure to become a ‘delicate’ or a ‘mean girl’. Even Josie the Cool finds conformity uncomfortable.
Rosy: It is strange for me to be reviewing a teen book. I have no expertise in this area and it is a while since I was a teen, but Leena asked me as I am so opinionated about all things “wimmin”. I recently outed myself as having a bit of a problem with chicklit which got me into a lot of trouble. Let me quickly say, I know it’s complicated, the genre isn’t just sex n shopping but is much broader now and there IS an awful the snobbery about the genre because of the informal style or the humour (both of which I am much in favour of). But, for me, it is the messages that usually have me gnawing my own arm off in frustration.
Which is probably why Leena invited me to take part in this review. Against all my prejudices and assumptions, I very much enjoyed Split by a Kiss.
I can’t work out precisely what the difference is between the message of this and of some of the adult chicklit I’ve read. Perhaps it is something to do with status and aspiration. Most adult chicklit concludes with something that confirms the aspirations (even if they pretend they don’t): the heroine gets the conveniently respectable professional man, marries a lord, loses the weight, has the make-over… whatever. What is different about SBAK is that the book is saying that there is nothing wrong with Jo in the first place.
Jo/Josie is a really engaging character – bright, chirpy and with a nerdy side that makes her slightly different from your normal heroine. Most importantly: fundamentally, she always knows what she really thinks, even during her attempts to gain popularity. She is a strong character, backed up by an unconventional geeky mother (refreshingly against stereotype) and I thought their relationship was particularly well done. The book seems to be saying that it is the pressures put upon her that are what we should be fighting as women – not our clothes, looks, job, relationship or whatever. It is a subtle difference maybe, but a big one, in my view.
But neither is the story about Jo “learning to accept herself” which implies a certain passivity: it is more active than that.
I felt that the resolution of both strands was less about “fate” or that it doesn’t really matter what you do as a teenager, but more about choice. Jo ends up in the same place in both strands because she takes control. Which is an even better message.
Lisa: Jo’s mum was a terrific character, I agree. I thought Jo’s relationship with her mother (and their shared love of bad TV movies) was so interesting – no brattish hissy fits and no gushing sentimentality. It just felt very real. I was also interested in Jo’s relationship with her family back home and her Boringtown best friend, Hayleigh.
Leena: I loved the way the novel’s parallel storylines came to the same conclusion to emphasis its point. At the same time – and this is my only real criticism of the book – I don’t think both sides of the narrative were equally strong. As they were both leading up to the same conclusion, you’d expect them both to drive the story in equal measure, but I must confess I felt the ‘real’ story was more on the Jo the Nerd side of things, and I was often impatient with the Josie the Cool side. This is a shame because I felt both sides of her were equally important: Josie the Cool’s story was just a bit less successful in execution, at least for me. Jo the Nerd’s story was simply more interesting, and better plotted.
Rosy: The “Sliding Doors” device of the split is used to explore the way teenagers group themselves into cliques and where I think Plaja has been particularly astute is in her portrayal of groups and showing that the “out-group” – in this case could-be lesbian Goth Rachel and Mancunian David (now am I completely biased here or is this just obviously the better group?) – can be just as cliquey and oppressive to an individual as the “in-group”. Jo/Josie has trouble expressing what she really thinks in both. (Although, I agree with Leena. It seemed to me that Plaja was very much biased towards the outties, as the “in-group” never really comes alive in the same way in terms of individual characters, in my view. Mind you, I’m probably more prejudiced towards the “outties” too!)
Plaja juggles the parallel plots admirably most of the way through the book, although I did find myself getting slightly confused three-quarters of the way through with where we were and who was who. Perhaps it is just my old brain not being able to keep up. I absolutely loved the early character parts and setting-up of the plot, but once it was set-up I did feel I could predict the outcome and some of the realisations and changes of attitudes from the characters towards the end were a little easily won. Perhaps a more offbeat or even less-than-positive ending to one of the sub-plots might have balanced this out more for me.
Lisa: I disagree. I was very interested in Josie’s experiences of the popular crowd. Part of me was wondering if Josie would put her own stamp on the ‘populars,’ but I was also fearful that the in-crowd would suddenly tear Josie to shreds. For me there was a lot of tension in this particular narrative, as if Josie was living her (popular) life on borrowed time.
The leader of that gang, Chelsea, was more than just a pretty-gal villain, and I did feel some sympathy for her at times.
So I was equally interested in both strands. I thought the writing was very powerful in that sense – I found myself rooting for Jo and Josie equally, throughout all of their triumphs and disasters.
At one point I did wonder if Jo would end up boyfriendless. I didn’t see the twists coming and I didn’t guess the ending. I felt that anything was possible in this story.
DEPICTION OF TEENAGE ISSUES
Leena: I thought the element of adolescent sexuality was important. Not only in regards to having the confidence to say NO, as underlined by Kendis’s unpleasant experience. But Josie the Cool, like many teenage girls I’m sure, finds herself walking a tightrope to stay just on the right side of it – too much either way and you get a reputation for being either frigid or slutty (or sometimes both at once). She doesn’t really feel comfortable with Jake, and learns to stand up for herself. But she doesn’t feel guilty, either; guilt and worrying about your reputation are both beside the point when the choice is something so personal.
Rosy: There is a discomfort I find in the representation of the boy as sex-mad and the girl wanting to say no. I did think Plaja touches on an important area: how you feel as a teenage girl in terms of whether you are taken seriously as a person, whether you are trying to act a certain way to get attention…
I did love the fact that Jo seemed to fall quite indiscriminately for any boy going, both funny and true to life as a teenager. And so…on to the…
Lisa: Another important message is to have pride in large noses! Where are all the heroines with large noses? – I wondered, as I was reading. Given the text’s stance on noses, it is rather a shame that the girls on the cover have teeny and barely distinguishable noses. They also both look very fashionably dressed, and the only difference I could see was that one had curls and the other had straight hair. Rosy will talk more about this.
Rosy: I have to own up here to sharing a very enjoyable pint with the author of this book and it turned out we have something in common – an anxiety about the representation of women’s noses in the media. Yes, it’s true, people! Think about any fashion picture, any billboard photo or cosmetics ad and you will find not only is the photo so overexposed as to render the poor girl featureless, but any sign of the olfactory object projecting at all is airbrushed away. Women these days aren’t just not allowed to have large noses, but ANY NOSES AT ALL.
This anti-nose prejudice is explored in the “cool girls” section where Chelsea perfect nose wrinkles away with impunity whilst Jo’s nose, it is suggested, is ripe for plastic surgery.
In light of this, it was a little depressing to see that the cover was vivid pink and featured a girl and her “uncool” reflection – neither of whom had a nose at all. A couple of nostrils if you’re lucky. And the only thing to denote one image’s lack of “coolness” is the fact she has curly hair!!!! And an arrow pointing at her saying “Nerd”(in case we don’t realise). In fact, one of the noseless girls has an arrow pointing at her saying “big nose”: enough to give any girl a complex.
As one of those teenagers who spent most of my time moping on the floor listening to Pink Floyd, I can’t imagine I’d have even picked up this book from the cover, which is a shame as the messages inside and outside the book don’t entirely match, and a teenager who lounges around in a depression listening to Pink Floyd needs to be told she can have a big nose as much as the next girl.
Leena: Couldn’t agree more! The girls on the cover puzzled me too. And as an admirer of big noses myself (!), I loved how Jo had never really thought about her nose until its size was pointed out to her. That’s something to keep in mind, isn’t it – most of our physical flaws aren’t flaws at all, until we begin to see them as such…
Lisa: One element that had me all but peeing my pants laughing (no, not my trousers) was the American/English punning and wordplay. Now, I suppose when the author is a linguist there was bound to be some of this, but I did feel there was a real love of different dialects and teen slang in this novel, and not a whiff of linguistic snobbery. I am ashamed to admit I had no prior knowledge of sporks…
Rosy: For me, the American/UK contrast was one of the parts I enjoyed most. As a teenager I spent a “semester” in an American school and I was wincing with recognition (and spluttering out loud) at the Personal Relationships class and the general confidence of American kids. Plaja draws all those little details so well. She takes a pleasure in the language and you could really hear Jo’s voice and a lot of humour was gleaned from the difference between American and UK ways of saying things, and also, more subtly, how this reflects the inner character – American emotionalism versus British reserve sort of thing. All this was nicely done, without prejudice and with a lot of affection.
Lisa: I read the book in less than 24 hours and found it totally addictive. It was a gripping tale, excellently crafted and I will bet a crisp ten pound note that this book will ride high in the bestseller charts. I believe it is currently in the Waterstones 3 for 2s, so get ye to a bookshop for this exciting first novel that is certainly not just for teens.
Rosy: A bright, energetic, funny book with a great heroine and an empowering message. Full of nice touches and details. This is probably not a book I would have picked up as a teenager (being avowedly anti-girlie and anti-pink) although that’s a shame as I might well have related to Jo – not to mention grumpy Goth, Rachel. I enjoyed it.
Leena: I enjoyed it as well – it was great fun, a quick read, and I laughed out loud in many places, but the book had meat on its bones too. I’m only just getting to know this genre for teenaged girls, and there seems to be so much excellent writing there – all the ones I’ve read thus far have been so good! But I can say Split by a Kiss is the best of that lot, or at least sharing that spot with Jaclyn Moriarty.
Publisher: Corgi Childrens, pp: 320, ISBN: 978-0552556804