Book review: Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here, Anna Breslaw

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Scarlett Epstein is living in hell: Her favourite television series was just cancelled, her tiny New Jersey town is chafing at her, her fancy writer dad is living it up in Manhattan with his new wife, and her mom is on her latest boyfriend of six gajillion. As if that wasn’t enough, the careful house of cards she’s assembled around her life is about to come tumbling down in Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here, a fun young adult contemporary that makes for a frothy read even if it also left me wanting a little more. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not a bad book, and I’m not advising you to steer clear of it, but it didn’t make fireworks of joy go off deep within me.

The greatest flaw in Scarlett Epstein may simply be that the bold protagonist is a little too precocious, and feels a tad too much like an authorial insert, which is sort of ironic given that a large portion of the book is about the Mary Sue phenomenon and what happens when you write yourself into your own work. It’s a flaw all of us are guilty of, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing — and let’s not forget that semi-autobiographical novels from men are masterworks of staggering genius while among women they’re trashy chicklit, so there’s a lot to unpack there when it comes to sexism.

Scarlett tries extremely hard to give off a jaded, hip air, pretending she doesn’t really care about the world around her and she’s happy with her small friend group and limited social life — except for online, where she’s a BNF. I’m seeing more and more YA contemporary that features a prominent fanfic component, although I have yet to see anyone who did it as well as Rainbow Rowell in Fangirl, but it’s a good subject to engage with because so much stigma and irrational hatred surrounds fanworks and their creators.

Yet something feels a little clunky to me about how Scarlett interacts with fellow BNFs and their followers as well as the teen world in general. This could be because I’m a disaffected Millennial and I don’t know these kids today, with their Tumblrs and Facebooks, but the book at times felt like it leaned too heavily on either overexplaining things (‘here’s what a BNF is if you didn’t know!’) or inside jokes — something which can feel dangerously dated in five years when Tumblr doesn’t exist anymore and people have moved on from the incredibly noxious trend of using .gifs everywhere to express their capital-F Feels.

It’s hard to strike a good balance here, because most YA is written by people who are not teens, and who are of varying ages. An author in her early 20s (or late 20s, in Breslaw’s case) is likely to feel more in tune with her demographic than an author in her early thirties, and it can show, but sometimes it feels a little too arch, as it did here. Scarlett is a little too…glossy, with her smart, precocious, snarky self, wearing her bad grades as a badge of honour and hanging out with her 73-year-old neighbour, who likes to smoke pot on the porch and putter around in her garden. While Scarlett isn’t perfect and in fact makes some pretty epic mistakes, it’s hard not to feel like she’s a vision of a sort of unattainable teen ideal. The girl all of us industry nerds (Bewslaw’s background is in media) wish we could have been.

So here’s Scarlett, the BNF, facing the end of the series and the end of an era, not knowing whether she and her friends are going to stick together or drift into different fandoms. Fixits can only carry people so far, and that’s when she starts exploring original characters, writing a lengthy fic that’s basically a thinly-veiled version of the drama in her own life (she barely even bothers changing names). When the people she’s writing about find out, they’re upset and furious — and at the same time, she’s finding out that her dad’s hot novel features a fictionalised version of her that’s pretty unfavourable, so she’s getting the experience at both ends.

This is really one of the most interesting parts of the book to me, because we are living in an era when parents share more and more of their children’s lives without consent, or without the capacity for consent. Very young children may not really understand what their parents are asking, while older kids might not understand the risks and benefits. This makes me extremely uncomfortable — I really feel that it’s not okay to write about your kids without explicit consent, and to really consider whether kids can consent and what the ramifications of your decision might be, because once it’s out there on the internet, it’s out there forever.

We’re starting to see a generation of young adult authors emerge who understand this experience from the other end of the power dynamic — kids who were thrust into fame they didn’t want by parents who didn’t think, didn’t care, or actively wanted to exploit them. Speaking as someone who’s been written about without consent, I know firsthand how frustrating, painful, and awful it is, and I’m glad to see people taking this issue on in YA, because young readers are growing up today in settings where it’s totally acceptable for parents to broadcast their private lives.

Let’s not forget that parenting blogs are some of the oldest online, and that means that in many cases the internet has been watching people grow from babies to teens. Those kids have a very different lived experience created by that lack of privacy and sense of violation, and it’s something that we should be talking about. It’s something teens should be able to conceptualise, seeing their experiences in text, and it’s something that adults need to be discussing as well: Is Instagram fame or a big sponsorship on your blog really worth violating the privacy and autonomy of your children?

Image: No, this is not, Marta Manso, Flickr