Gag Me with a Spoon (Like, For Real)
I'm one of those people who really enjoys, like, gimmicky publishing. In grad school, I read Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves and LOVED all that insane typesetting and graphic work. I get into it. Last year, I really enjoyed Grady Hendrix's Horrorstor for the same reason: a horror novel set in an IKEA-like superstore, it features wordless illustrated instructions for assembling instruments of torture. Totally hilarious.
When I first read about My Best Friend's Exorcism, I didn't realize that it was also written by Hendrix. The book is designed to look like your older sister's high school yearbook from 1988. The endpapers are covered with handprinted messages and drawings. The back features advertisements for businesses in Charleston, SC circa the late 80s. Hendrix fully embraces the kitsch by also naming each chapter after a pop song of the era: "Don't You Forget About Me", "We Got the Beat", "Party All the Time". It's all very nostalgic and amusing. I found it charming.
But, truth is, all of this visual trickery disguises a novel that actually says something incredibly powerful and beautiful about female friendships. Don't be fooled; this isn't just a silly exercise in nostalgia.
Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since they met at an ill-fated skating rink birthday party in 1982. Now, they're at the top of their class at the prestigious Albemarle Academy in Charleston, South Carolina and loving life. They're beautiful, popular, successful, and smart. Of course, things are about to go seriously wrong. After a night of some pretty harmless debauchery, Gretchen returns from a skinny dip in a lowcountry marsh not entirely herself. Over the course of the next few weeks, Abby observes Gretchen's changes: she doesn't sleep, doesn't eat, avoids showers. The more Abby tries to help, though, the worse things become.
This is also a novel about class struggle. Abby's family is poor and hardworking. Gretchen's (and their other girlfriends') is quite wealthy in the old-fashioned, landed sort of way that people in Charleston, SC have perhaps always been. When things begin to go south, it's easy for Gretchen's parents to blame their daughter's changes on Abby (who is accused of a variety of crimes including drug dealing). She's an easy scapegoat at their swanky private school (Abby attends on scholarship).
At every turn, Abby must face creatures with sinister intentions: parents, friends, classmates, teachers, and eventually a demon. What, exactly, has happened to Gretchen is never entirely clear. What will save her, though, is absolutely certain from the start: Abby. It's only Abby who notices all of these changes in her friend, who cares what will happen to her, who is willing to do what it takes to get her back. Female friendships among teens are genuinely powerful. Like, painfully so. Any woman who was once a teen knows this. That Abby is Gretchen's only savior will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever felt the agonizingly tight bond of love and connection known as BFF's.
This is a tricky title because while it is about teenagers, it is written from the perspective of an adult, looking back on teen years. Most review sites and the publisher don't recognize this as a YA title. It probably isn't, really. I think, though, that both teens and adults will appreciate the realistic relationships and the intense horror (and please don't think I'm exaggerating: there are some truly horrific moments here including an episode involving diet shakes that will haunt me for a long time). Also, I think there will be a certain kind of teen who will be really into the nostalgic elements--pay phones and tape decks and crimping irons.
It's safe to say I really enjoyed this novel. I found myself tearing up during the emotional exorcism (that's NOT a spoiler given the title!). Also, as I said before, I'm very into gimmicks and this one was chock a block full of them. My family lives near Savannah, GA and that's just down the road from Charleston, SC so I also really enjoyed reading all of the geographical details and recognizing street names and neighborhoods. The author is from Charleston, so the details all felt very genuine.
If you enjoyed any of these titles, I am pretty sure you're gonna love My Best Friend's Exorcism:
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
Carrie by Stephen King
Teen Spirit by Francesca Lia Block
Also! Check out the publisher's tumblr site for the book (which contains a pretty great Spotify playlist and everything): http://mybestfriendsexorcism.com/