________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 9 . . . . December 22, 2006

cover

The Candy Darlings. 

Christine Walde.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2006.
310 pp., pbk., $14.00.
ISBN 0-14-305621-2.
 
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
 
Review by Caitlin J. Berry.

**** /4 

Reviewed from Uncorrected and Unpublished Proofs.

excerpt: 

One afternoon a black jawbreaker was left in the pencil tray of my desk. There was no packaging. No evidence of who might have touched  it, in whose hands it may have traveled. It was simply a naked,  innocuous black jawbreaker. A tiny bomb. 

To my shame, I wanted to take it in my mouth. To feel my cheek bulge and teeth ache. To taste the sugar melt as I moved it from side to side, rolling it over my tongue, imagining each layer a different sensation, altering from one flavor to another before it exploded in a big sour bang of gum.  

I walked home with it, clutching it tightly. When I was far enough away from school and I was sure no one was watching me, I held it between my thumb and index finger and studied its strange beauty. I could have had it. But when I saw myself reflected in it, like a crystal ball, I saw how I was tempted by it. By its potency. By its sweetness. Horrified and ashamed, I threw it away, tossing it into someone’s bushes.  

When I got home, I went straight into the bathroom and washed my hands. I watched the gray candied water swirl down the drain as I rubbed the stain of the jawbreaker away, erasing its black mark of death. 

After her mother died, she vowed that she would never eat candy again. Liquid candy, she decided at the time, was really what had killed her. The glucose dripping down from the plastic sac into the IV in her mother’s arm had eventually, and fatally, burned her mother  up from within. 

 

The Candy Darlings begins when the protagonist and her father, months after her mother’s passing, move to a brand new subdivision, where she begins at a new high school. Now, with the possibility of a clean slate, her only wish is to be and to feel normal. And she never does tell us her name; it’s efficiently, almost imperceptibly, omitted  from the telling of her tale. 

     She tries hard to fit in, and it pays off; at her new high school, the three most popular girls, Meredith, Angela and Laura, approach her. She begins initiations into their exclusive clique, and everything on the road to numb normalcy seems to be on track. 

     Enter Megan Chalmers. 

     Megan is also new, but she is different. Megan dresses to shock, she boldly (and wittily) speaks her opinionated mind, and instead of trying to fit in, she busts through social conventions with her very life force. Megan also loves candy. She hoards it. She consumes it by  the seeming cartload. Candy is Megan’s lifeblood. Fated to become  friends, our protagonist betrays Meredith, Angela and Laura  (nicknamed MAL by Megan), and Megan and she become a tightly wrapped duo. Megan is a kindred, for she has also dealt with tragedy, her father having died in a plane crash years before. 

          They spend their time together teaming up against MAL, scheming about how to obtain more candy (for Megan has helped our protagonist to break her vow and to, once again, see the sugar coated light) and Megan loves to tell strange and disturbing fairy tales. Our  protagonist, in turn, loves to be entranced by them. Megan and she also volunteer as candy stripers at St. Teresa’s hospital where they  meet Edie, an elderly candy connoisseur and soul mate. Indeed, Megan’s rebelliousness rubs off. In addition to shoplifting sweets, our protagonist becomes defiant and troublesome to her grieving and emotionally absent father.
 

     As time passes, it becomes evident that Megan’s story doesn’t  completely check out. Mysteriously, Megan sporadically disappears without notice for a week at a time, only to arrive at home with a  completely new look. She refuses to acknowledge that anything about this is out of the ordinary. Megan has secrets. But our protagonist does too: she doesn’t tell Megan that she is has a romantic soft spot for the school “loser,” (but truly sweet) Blake Starfield. 

     Eventually, the duo’s behaviour becomes reckless. After they pull a dangerous prank at one of MAL’s parties, MAL comes back with  terrifying retribution. Soon after, Megan disappears again, and this time for good. Desperate, our protagonist attempts to piece together clues as to Megan’s past, and what she does find is chilling. 

     In the end, our protagonist realizes that she’ll never completely solve the mystery and find out the hard truth about Megan Chalmers. Reality, she’s learned of late, is a matter of perspective. What’s more important is that Megan and she found needed friendship and strength in one another. Our protagonist realizes that she can now tell her own stories, create her own realities, and live her authenticity fearlessly. She has also developed the perspective with which to face, and to move on from, her mother’s death. 

     For a first novel, The Candy Darlings is impressive. It is deliciously dark, courageous, unique and crafted intricately. It is emotionally layered and exudes sensuality. The imagery is vibrant, the characters are bold, and the dialogue is sharp, smart, perfectly timed and often hilarious. By the end, there is a satisfying circularity, a sense of coming together; all of the introduced ideas are woven in and tied up, although, aptly, certain questions are left  for the reader to answer, which, indeed, keeps with the thematic integrity of the novel. Walde’s world is stylized, eerie and strange, while at the same time grounded in the realistic. We find ourselves  straddling both realities with ease. 

     One, surprisingly, is not bothered by the amorphous nature of Walde’s protagonist – one may not even notice until the end that her name was never spoken. Perhaps sharp details and imagery, as well as Megan Chalmers’ largess, more than balances this out. However, it must be said that Megan’s vibrancy and hilarity certainly does, at times, upstage. And one does question the age and voice of the main character. Often she sounds incredibly wise and analytical for her age, and once in a while Walde risks telling the reader too much,  even though she has already shown us with great effect. 

     No matter: one quickly forgives Walde for these small lumps. With The Candy Darlings this first-time novelist has delivered us something to savour. It is sophisticated, yet delicious and fun to read -- thus alluring for teens. Don’t be surprised, however, if severe sugar craving emerges by the time you’ve finished the book. 

Highly Recommended. 

Caitlin Berry is a graduate of Vermont College’s Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She is  also a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine, and is finishing her first novel. She lives on Vancouver Island. 

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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