Smart Girls Like Me by Diane Vadino is the perfect example of a book that I judged by it’s cover. It’s pink, and the cover image, as you can see, is of a rack of clothes. Even the jacket copy wasn’t too promising — 24-year old who works at a fashion magazine afraid of 1999 turning to 2000. Boy trouble. Wedding trouble. Drugs, sex and rock and roll.
Yawn. If it looks like chick lit and talks like chick lit, it’s chick lit, right? I am not a fan of the genre. I have no patience for Jennifer Weiner, or her commentary on the subject (which I liken to a Catholic priest defending the church while molesting the alter boy). I gravitate toward non-fiction, but if I’m in the mood for a good story, I seek out books by young women for young women that reflect what our lives are actually like, not some technicolor mock up filled with martinis and shoes we can’t afford, and, if we could, shouldn’t buy because there are plenty of other places to put $500.
So Smart Girls Like Me stayed on my shelf until I got an email from Vadino. She’d read on Galleycat that I was looking for people with Jersey Shore ties to interview on my other blog, Down the Shore With Jen. The main character in her book, Betsy Nilssen, is from Margate, one of the towns I write about in my book (which comes out in May — read the other blog for more information about it). After a very pleasant email exchange, I decided to give Smart Girls Like Me a shot. After tearing through The First Campaign, I figured I could use something a little lighter.
I’m happy to say that I was wrong about Smart Girls Like Me. This is not chick lit, and even though Nilssen works in fashion, this novel is not a rip off of The Devil Wears Prada, a book so bad that I would urge you not to even pick it up off a bargain table (the movie had very little to do with the book, which is why I think it’s a good movie). In fact, Smart Girls Like Me so captured 20-something life and hit so close home that I almost stopped reading it.
Nilssen works at an online fashion magazine in one of those dreadful editorial assistant jobs that are the reason why I did not zip up to NYC to work the life out of myself for $30,000 a year (in NYC, that’ll get you nowhere). She’s 24, hasn’t had a serious boyfriend in years, and her best friend is getting married. Been there, done that. Things start to turn around for Nilssen when a guy she’s pined for returns from Japan, freshly single, and asks her out.
Yeah, been there, done that, too. Not the Japan part, but finally locking lips with someone I’d had a stupid crush on for a long time. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that things don’t exactly go as Nilssen planned, and the same thing happened to me. If there’s one relationship that’s going to really do you in, make you hurt for longer than you thought could hurt, and rip away any sort of positive feelings you felt about relationships, love and happily ever after, it’s usually this one — the one you know is wrong from the start, but you try out anyway because you think you can make it work.
My split with this person happened twice — first, a year ago this month. Second, in March. I hung in too long, and I let him control the timbre, the tone, the pace, the EVERYTHING that happened between the two of us because I thought if I just waited it out, or became the person he wanted to be with, that he’d finally give me the kind of relationship I wanted. We’d drug it out to the point where he met someone who he said did ‘that thing for him’ that I couldn’t do. There is no more painful phrase in any language to me. It knocked me flat. It still does. Sure, since March, I’ve dated. I even had two wonderful guys tell me they loved me. But on Saturday, at a particularly low moment, as I laid on the floor of my grandparents house, crying, trying to tell my mother why I was so low, I finally admitted that part of my problem was that I wasn’t over him. Yes, I believe that I’ve moved on, and I am out ‘on the scene’ and having a great time dating (a wonderful, fun and exciting time, actually), but in those quiet moments where I wonder where my life has been and where it’s going — especially in the weeks after my high school boyfriend got married and my brother got engaged — remembering that person, those words, and that phrase knocked me on my ass again. It didn’t help, either, that on Friday night, I was at the same bar where the whole saga started (no, it was not my choice to go there). And my work situation, plus the broken washer and leak in my new house, aren’t helping. There’s nothing like the memories of being so carelessly tossed aside to amplify everything that’s not going right at a particular moment in your life.
Smart Girls Like Me didn’t exactly help at first because I saw myself in Nilssen, and it hurt. I wanted to reach out and smack her out of making the same choices I did. I wanted to reach out and smack my 25-year-old self, too. In Nilssen, I saw the same mistakes, the same self-assurances that everything’s fine, and the searing pain when you admit that everything’s wrong. But that is why this is a book worth reading, and why it’s one of those books I look for by a young woman for young women. Because this is what life is like. It’s hard. It’s messy. And sometimes it sucks. But you can get back up again and keep going. I know I have.
I think that things pop into your life at just the right times. The Four Man Plan happened just as I was thinking about re-energize my dating life. Smart Girls Like Me came along at a time when it felt like someone hit “refresh” on my hurt over this guy. I heard “Big Casino” by Jimmy Eat World at the time when this guy emailed me to say hello for the first time in eight months, a song with the lyrics “I’m the one who gets away / I’m a New Jersey success story” — a song that I now play when I’m getting ready to go out. Plus, November’s Psychology Today is dedicated to getting over it. I cut out a passage from one of the articles and stuck it to my fridge:
“The best way to soothe the memory of a painful final chapter…is to think about the ways in which you have gained closure on the event. Maybe it’s not as bad as it was last month, for instance…remember that over time people come to regret inaction more than action — so take comfort in the fact that you were able to act. And finally, though it’s not always a given, keep in mind that many memories close with the passing to time.”
I did act. I was the one who severed the cord — for some reason, this guy thought that me, him and this girl who did ‘that thing for him’ that I couldn’t do would all hang out and be friends. I told him to leave me alone. And I don’t feel nearly as bad as I did eight months ago. Not at all, and I can look back now and see how wrong that whole situation was, and learn something from it. I still haven’t erased the sting of that rejection from my life, but I’m past it, accepted it as part of my personal history, and learned from it. Not to get all quote-y on you, but, as the Kayne West song goes, “That that don’t kill me / Can only make me stronger.” There’s a reason it’s on my running mix.
I wish more young women would write books like Smart Girls Like Me, and that more young women would read them instead of the crap that publishers are trying to stuff down our throats. Maybe I’ll find a few more like it through this reading project. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you know.
And if you want to read Vadino’s opinion about her book’s cover, click here.