I had the preconception that the story would be a bit like the plot of a Hollywood film, maybe like 'The Princess Diaries', or 'The Devil Wears Prada', where a makeover is essentially the main storyline. There's a teeny-tiny bit of that, but it's not at all a modern girl's transformation into a girl from the 1950s. Some of the parts I liked most were about Maya's experiences of how she got it wrong. At times it seems that her interpretations of Betty's advice are going to give the opposite result - rather than the pretty circle skirt and pumps that Betty no doubt had in mind when writing about dressing neatly, Maya chooses to wear an ankle-length shapeless skirt and too-big 'Pilgrim' style shoes! I found these misinterpretations hilarious reading, but fair play to Maya for remaining undaunted and determined to see it through, her way.
The book references a modern school culture that includes drugs, gangs, and school shootings. I have to say that I was shocked at the level of peer pressure, bullying, and 'clique' culture that Maya has endured at her school. She writes very matter-of-factly about incidents that would personally have reduced me to tears, and it made me wonder generally about attitudes to 'fitting in' between the US and the UK. Here in Britain of course we still have bullying and peer pressure, nowhere is exempt from it, but on the whole I think that the quality of British eccentricity is perhaps so common that we're a bit more tolerant of people's individual quirks when it comes to dress-sense and so forth. That's just my personal impression, I'd love to know what you all think?
Most of all, this book was touching, as it describes the growing pains and peer pressures against the backdrop of a relatively deprived area. I was really rooting for Maya by the end, and had a lump in my throat as I read about her losses and her triumphs. Changing your appearance can often trigger a change in attitude, and it seems as though Maya really has 'found' herself, with all the confidence and self-assuredness of a woman ten years her senior. If I'd had half her guts, school would have been much easier for me!
Don't read this to hear about how nice vintage clothes are, because that's really not the point of the book. Do read it to hear about a fantstically brave and talented teen. A film is being planned, and I think the story will translate brilliantly to the screen, with a lot of scope for a bit of artistic licence that will bring out the fun, and the agony, of growing up - whether a teen in the 1950s or the 2010s.
I hope by now that Maya has found a girdle that fits properly, else I'll have to point her in the direction of What Katie Did and their superbly fitting range!
'Popular' by Maya Van Wagenen is published by Penguin. I was sent a copy for review, but my views are my own!