CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 17 . . . .April 13, 2007
Better Than Blonde.
Toronto, ON: Puffin Canada, 2007.
212 pp., pbk., $14.00.
Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Joan Marshall.
"We could do it in one big swoop - like - look, guys, here's the thing: Sophie's dad is not dead and I am adopted. Now the bad news, the dad was in prison all this time and my actual birth mother is dead. But, but, but the good news is that the dad's been cleared thanks to Grandfather, and my ever-so-amusing new grandmother is actually a fabulous part of my life, all thanks to Sophie tracking her down last year."
"Uh, hmmm." She had on one flat sandal and one high-heeled sandal. We went through this every time. Madison owns, like, a thousand pairs of heels, but she never wears them because she'd be taller than most of the football team in them. "Or something like that."
"Look, even I can tell that Edna's a tad, uh, especially for you guys, but she's kind of a riot, don't you think? If you look at it from a, uh."
"I know, Sophie."
"Secrets eat you up, Madison. They change you." Jesus, I sounded like a hotline crisis counsellor.
She grabbed my arm. "I KNOW, Sophie."
Of course she did. Madison's been keeping her secret for a lot longer than I've been keeping mine. I had her.
Okay, well, so there you have it. I left with my toes freshly polished, six new pairs of stockings, and the certainty that we'd both finally come clean.
So that was settled then.
God, I'm good.
Sophie Kandinsky, 15-year-old athlete, member of the grade 10 Blonde clique in spite of her head of quirky dark curls, decides to come clean to her friends about her father's existence. But will her friends, so keen to share their secrets with her individually, also come clean to everyone else? Has her father really stopped drinking? Can she cope with her mother's group of over-the-top amusing immigrant friends who reel from one crisis to the next as they plan the world's wildest ethnic wedding? But most of all, will Sophie's own body betray her as she falls hard for gorgeous Luke Pearson (who just happens to have a seriously determined girlfriend of two years)?
Better Than Blonde will have the intended readership (mostly female, for sure) howling with laughter and on the edge of their seats in suspense as Sophie's ironic, smart internal dialogue alternates with her aunts' hysterical mangling of the English language. Sophie's thoughtful observations of her friends' families' lives, and the soup crock of high school gossip, pretension and emotion will have readers zipping through this excellent novel and demanding more.
Telling this novel in the first person, Toten draws Sophie and her friends and all their families with care and precision. Sophie's immigrant parents' struggling relationship is seen obliquely, through Sophie's teenage eyes, and it is only slowly that Sophie recognizes her father's alcoholism. As sexual longing and a clearer understanding of how to help her friends come to Sophie, she moves gradually through her first love crisis and remains close to her friends while she copes with the disintegration of her parents' marriage.
From music to the local diner, it will be clear to readers that this is the 1970's in Toronto. Sophie and her friend Sarah can't just go to the drugstore and buy a pregnancy kit. Sophie's initial shocked response to Sarah's losing her virginity and her later ambivalence over her sexual longing for Luke and her fear of pregnancy will seem strange to today's adolescents. AIDS and STD's are not the issues in this novel that they are today. The loving, cool librarian (thank goodness! A positive adult!) can only recommend Planned Parenthood, and Luke has to marry the pregnant girlfriend, all of which will seem odd to today's teens. However, the agony of betrayal will echo in the heart of every reader.
Toten's themes of the support of friends, the keeping of secrets and the centrality of love will speak to the younger teenager who longs for it all: the perfect boyfriend, the fun of great friends and the warm cocoon of family who love you.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller who clearly remembers the danger of high school sexual politics and the strength of friends and family.
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