Radford, Michelle (2008). Almost fabulous. NY: HarperTeen. 247 pages.
At the request of an organization for whom I’ll be giving a workshop, I’ve been looking for YA titles related to bullying. As someone who is decidedly NOT a fan of the traditionally bibliotherapeutic, I was interested in finding out whether the lay of this topical land was as monotonous as I feared. Almost Fabulous, a British import, definitely challenges some key assumptions I made about YA novels in the bully “genre.” Set in London and narrated by fourteen-year-old Fiona, whose self-styled “Total Anonymity” keeps her safely below the radar at school but ensures that she will never pique the interest of her crush, the novel did address some mean girl behavior but from a somewhat fantastic perspective. When Fiona begins to suspect that she has extrasensory powers (a suggestion made by a man she believes might be her long-lost father and who appeared to her in what would seem to be a magical way via the Internet), she vacillates between wanting to use her powers to thwart the school bully and wanting to deny her talents and remain safely anonymous at school.
A summary of this novel’s plot doesn’t really give it justice, as the story becomes mildly madcap as the novel progresses. While her ESP “problem” is a front-and-center plot point, Fiona’s secondary concern–one that has been pervasive since she arrived at her high school–is that no one discover her mother is a former member of a successful pop girl band a la the Spice Girls. Both of these worries speak to two types of fantasy: the traditional generic fantasy (ESP) and the social fantasy (superstar mom). As these fantastic dilemmas weave in and out of the story, the novel itself takes on the madcap tone I mentioned earlier. The “madcappery” helps to diffuse the earnestness of the tertiary story involving Fiona and her friends’ gradual diffusion of the school Mean Girl’s power. Although the zenith of this bully story comes–after-school-special-style–during a school assembly, author Radford keeps the requisite slow clapping at bay and manages to make Fiona’s victory seem genuine rather than contrived.
While the next comment may say more about my dark and bitter heart than the novel itself, I believe it’s worth mentioning. I wonder if I could only stand the triumph-of-the-underdog theme of Almost Fabulous as it was situated within an already fantastic (generic fantastic) framework. As I mentioned before, I loathe after-school-special pat endings and, though this novel did have one, I could stomach it as fantasy but would probably be barfing all over the place if it were the conclusion of a 100% realistic novel. That I can only believe in the underdog win in fantasy fiction surely says something about my dour worldview. Am I an unbearable curmudgeon or do I just demand more than the average bear from my socially attentive YA literature?