Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, famously said, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” and Meredith Harper believes this fervently. The book Popular by Gareth Russell follows Meredith, Kerry, Imogen, and Cameron and their friends, enemies, and frenemies during their fifth (roughly equivalent to sophomore) year at Mount Olivet Grammar School in Belfast, Northern Ireland. These four students are among the most beautiful, wealthy, and popular in the school and the city – we’re talking Paris Hilton and Friends: The High School Years. What follows is what you’d probably expect: a trip on the social standing rollercoaster, parties, relationships, secrets, scheming, half-truths and outright lies, and the experience that is the Fabulous Induced Breakdown.
I found out about this book from the author, whose blog I have followed for well over two years now. I find him a thoughtful, clever writer with a real sense of history and poetry in his writing. Fortunately for me, there are some traces of Gareth the historian in this book. Both Meredith and Kerry are fans of historical queens (Anne Boleyn and Marie Antoinette, respectively, both frequent topics on Gareth’s historical blog), and the Romanovs, Elizabeth I, and the Bubonic Plague are also mentioned. Beyond that, the writing in Popular is clever and thoughtful, though perhaps without the same poetic beauty as his historical posts. (I refer you to his telling of the execution of Anne Boleyn.)
I often say I am allergic to drama, specifically boy-girl, she-bought-that-top-even-after-I-said-I-wanted-it drama. (I work with junior highers, so unfortunately I find myself surrounded with the stuff.) As a result, I have stayed entirely away from that type of film and television, specifically Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, and the entire CW Network lineup. So why do I enjoy this book as much as I do? The best way I can describe it comes from the character Mark, whose public hatred of Meredith hides complicated inner feelings: “People found it harder to be angry with cruelty if it made them laugh and Meredith played upon that.” Gareth plays upon it, too: Meredith and her friends are not good role models. These supposed besties routinely threaten each other with violence, and one character gives you the distinct feeling that she would follow through. (She’s described to a newcomer as “the one who will kill you as you sleep.”) But beyond all that is a group of scathingly witty characters who are so audaciously bad that it’s rather fun to watch, like if a train wreck wore couture. Or perhaps it’s like if Absolutely Fabulous took place in a Northern Irish high school, but with less smoking and drinking. (Well, smoking anyway. The clique frequently imbibes, but is still very much in control of their faculties on a daily basis, with occasional trips into drunkenness. Imogen, however, appears to smoke like a chimney.)
Another reason I enjoy the book so much is the adventures in the day-to-day lives of the group. Gareth’s author blurb remarks that many of the events that take place in the book are drawn from his own school days, and the more extraordinary they are, the greater the chance is that they actually happened. So reading about Cameron scrambling to write a fake note in class implying that he is trying to counsel a crack-addicted, homeless, gender-confused friend with an eating disorder just to get out of trouble for writing a real note in class contains an extra layer of humor when you imagine not just Cameron engaging in such weirdness, but an actual person. Finally, as an American Evangelical with Hibernophile leanings, I found the book’s take on Catholic life and the Northern Irish elite fascinating. (That said, I did feel left out of a few things, and not just the Catholic/UK stuff. For those who are not up on designer labels, the statement “Adultery is like a Roberto Cavalli outfit” doesn’t mean much. The fashionista in me wishes it did, though.)
Gareth takes the time to delve into the motivations of his lead characters, but he does not apologize for them. The teens of Malone Park are ridiculously wealthy, but there is no tone of “Poor Little Rich Girl” for any of them, even when the group dynamic teeters on the edge. One character comes to realize just how toxic her friends can be, but still continues to participate in the group’s activities, just now with her eyes open. Meredith, however, proclaims that hashing out one’s lessons learned is weak, even if they did it in Mean Girls.
In all honesty, I set out to read Popular mostly just to support a blogger I enjoyed, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the book. If you like your stone-cold witches with a good dose of humor, or if you would like to try a Gossip Girl-type story set in a new location that isn’t in America, you will probably enjoy this book, too.
Meredith would probably call my opinion irrelevant, but I’ll still give this book 4 out of 5 Diet Cokes (although it’s “Fat” Dr. Pepper all the way for this girl).
A brief note to American readers: this book is not yet available in bookstores. You can order it from Amazon.com, and copies that are shipping from US sellers are available. (Otherwise, you’ll have to pay more for international shipping.) Furthermore, this book is written with a UK audience in mind, and I’m not talking about spelling it “centre.” Being unfamiliar with UK schooling, I had to read up on things like grammar schools and the house system. If this book ever gets a print release in the States, supplemental material (sort of like the glossary at the end of the Georgia Nicolson books) might be helpful. Or you all could just go look it up like I did. Also, Jamie Dornan, who is mentioned by name in the book, was recently seen playing Sheriff Graham on the ABC series Once Upon a Time. The description of him in the book is accurate. 😀