Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Book Review: Up and In
Despite the new study (here’s Buzzfeed’s take on it) showing that boys are just as likely to use exclusion and other social weapons to bully their peers as girls are, the Mean Girls dynamic is still a popular trope in all types of fiction, showcasing girls and women of all ages. Perhaps it’s because so many of us were left out at some point in our lives – or watched our own children be left out – that these stories still resonate with us. We want to see protagonists stop trying so hard to make friends with people who obviously don’t care about them, find a better set of pals, and watch the meanies lose everything. Because let’s face it – this rarely happens in real life.
Deborah Disney’s Up and In is the latest offering in this story type. Her Maria has played Gretchen Weiner to Bea’s Regina George for years – ever since their 10-year-old daughters were in nursery school together. Although it took a while for Bea’s spoiled Mirabella to warm up to Maria’s doting Kate, eventually the girls became good friends, and Bea included Maria in her own circle of friends, even though Maria wasn’t quite as financially well off as Bea and her cohorts. This all went along happily enough for a few years, until all the girls played on the same netball team, the Red Rockets. Maria blames her break-up with Bea on her casual refusal to buy special team hair ties that Mirabella made, but it seemed to me that Bea’s attitude abruptly changed during a game when Kate played better than Mirabella. Whatever the reason, before she even realized something bad had happened, Maria was being left off of team emails and other outings that Bea had planned for the moms. Even worse, their daughters started doing the same thing to Kate.
Desperate to maintain her position as Bea’s number two, Maria goes to increasing lengths to find out what Bea is up to, and the plans that Kate’s teammates make in her absence. These are petty plans – everyone wearing their hair a certain way during a game, or a particular type of outfit during a school dance – but they succeed in making Kate feel ostracized, which affects her ability to play. Maria’s husband Joe, who always had his doubts about Bea and Mirabella, can’t understand why Maria tries so hard to get back into Bea’s good graces. And Kate is just devastated by the machinations, and blames Maria for everything.
I sympathized with Maria, but found her a little hard to root for. Even when they were getting along, Bea was never a great friend to her – always treating Maria more like a fan than an equal. Maria refuses to confront Bea about her petty little tricks, and encourages Kate to keep trying with Mirabella and her followers, rather than encouraging her to find a new set of friends. I wanted Maria to pull Kate off the netball team, find her a new group to play with, and have Kate score the winning goal against her old teammates at the buzzer while Maria’s new friends told her how wonderful she was. But Maria just wanted everything back to the status quo, which is probably how most of us would feel in that situation.
And most of us have been in that situation, which is why these types of stories resonate so deeply. The only thing worse than being left out ourselves is watching the same thing happen to our children. The Mean Girl lexicon offers readers a chance to re-live those scenarios with a happier ending.
This isn’t just an American phenomenon, either – Up and In takes place in Australia; Amanda Egan’s Mummy Misfit deals with these women in the UK. I’m sure it stretches back to the cave woman days – limited resources means there’s not enough wooly mammoth burgers to go around, so we can’t be friends with everyone.
I just had one quibble -- Disney never explained the rules of netball, and I’d never heard of it before. Is it an Australian thing or a little girl sport? Without knowing the rules, I couldn’t understand the action she was describing.
In that respect, it was a lot like being on the outside watching an alpha mom rule her roost. You may not know the rules, but there’s no question about who is winning.
Thanks to HarperCollins Australia for the book in exchange for an honest review.