By the Book: A Novel of Prose and Cons by Amanda Sellet

Rating: 2 out of 5.

SMDH… I really wanted to like this book.

Honestly, though, it wasn’t you, Book, it was me. I just was not in the head space for this.

As a devotee of classic novels, Mary Porter-Malcolm knows all about Mistakes That Have Been Made, especially by impressionable young women. So when a girl at her new high school nearly succumbs to the wiles of a notorious cad, Mary starts compiling the Scoundrel Survival Guide, a rundown of literary types to be avoided at all costs.

Unfortunately, Mary is better at dishing out advice than taking it—and the number one bad boy on her list is terribly debonair. As her best intentions go up in flames, Mary discovers life doesn’t follow the same rules as fiction. If she wants a happy ending IRL, she’ll have to write it herself.

…. Meh. I kind of feel like I must have missed something, or I guess I’m just not in the mood for a cute, young, contemporary YA because I did not enjoy reading this book. It wasn’t bad, and admittedly had quite a lot of charm, but I wasn’t invested and often felt like rolling my eyes at Mary. I suppose that’s the point, that she grows and learns a lesson over the arc of the story, but I wasn’t interested enough to feel celebratory for her at the end when she confronted her fears and mistakes.

There were a couple things I liked, such as the picturesque conversation where Mary and Alex sit in her backyard for a chat with autumn leaves all around them. Another was when her parents comforted Mary after she is a complete coward and she runs home distraught. Her mother takes the opportunity to share a nugget of wisdom:

“Remorse forces us to take a hard look at ourselves. It gives us the strength to grow, and the courage to do the right thing next time – or at least try.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, and I further enjoyed the funny banter between Mary and her parents that I thought was very charming. There are many moments I thought were memorable and sweet, but Mary herself was the opposite of charming, in my opinion.

There are too many times where Mary dreams of the old times- where, as she says, men had to be introduced to women before approaching them; where there were expected formalities in social situations; where she could go to dances and wear gowns that actually fit her, unlike the box store dresses she tries on with her new friends at the mall. 

All this completely ignores the fact that the books she reads, the “classics”, are pretty much entirely about people who had enough wealth to afford finery like custom-made ball gowns. However, the first thing we learn about Mary Porter-Malcolm’s family is that they are too poor to afford cell phones.

Really, this is not a big deal, except that Mary lives in a dream world, and I currently do not have the patience for this naivete, and this jerked me out of the narrative of the story.

…I think I might be as much of a snob as Mary. Uh-oh.

This is why I think this is a “it’s not you, it’s me” situation. I just don’t have the patience for a story about a sheltered girl who dreams of a “better” time, especially when that time was rife with classism, sexism, and any other ism you would like to add in. Sadly, I didn’t realize that before I opened this book.

Anyway, Mary is sheltered and has to move to a new high school because the school she has attended since birth (practically) is being closed. She soon makes new friends, who decide to take her under their wing to give her a taste of real teenage life, all the while creating a catalog listing well-known literary scoundrels and attributing their traits to some of their school mates.

The girls meet in a cafe called Toil and Trouble and Mary feels the need to recite the quote to the girls to explain the name, as though Toil and Trouble is completely without context. I’m sorry, but you’re just showing off. Everyone knows that phrase from that song in Harry Potter. There’s no need to whip out the Shakespeare to explain the name of the establishment in which you happen to meet.

One of Mary’s new friends is also new to their school, just like Mary, but they all decide to focus on Mary for her “season”, as Mary likes to call it. When one girl doesn’t know what a “season” means, they explain, like a “debutante ball”, or give other examples. 

And here is where my nitpicking of tiny things gets the better of me. You thought it was the “toil and trouble” debacle, but no. The other new girl in the group is Latina, and so am I, and so I said to myself, “like a quinceanera”. But they all used other words, “debutante ball”, “coming out”, a time where a girl becomes a woman, etc. and that moment stuck out like a thorn in my side because it was so obvious that the Latina character was being written by a non-Latino person who didn’t know what a quinceanera was, or at least didn’t think to have her Latina character speak up about it. This broke me out of the story yet again, because it was so unreal.

The moment that I realized Mary was truly unlikable to me was at the school dance. Mary is whisked away by the not-really-a-scoundrel Alex and they kiss, and she really likes him, and is totally caught up in the moment. Alex is calm, patient, makes sure it’s okay with her, and they have a sweet moment. Until her friends storm in and catch them embracing (clutch your pearls) and Mary lets her friends believe that Alex was making unwanted advances on her. She was too stunned to say or do anything apparently, so she let them believe he was taking advantage of her, and they rail on him. I mean, as they should if that were truly the case, but it wasn’t. Alex asks her to please speak up, to say anything to explain that their kissing was with her permission, that she actually likes him, but she turns away from him, and let’s her friends rescue her.


But, finally, the real kicker. Mary gets it into her mind that one of her friends has a crush on her sister, and decides it best to tell this friend that she supports her sexual identity… in front of their friends as a show of solidarity without actually confirming anything or making sure that would be okay with said friend. Basically, Mary ‘outs’ her friend (who doesn’t actually have a crush on her sister, not that it matters) in front of their friend, with no consequences, even though that was a completely out of line thing for her to do! My draw dropped. Why would you make someone else’s business yours to use in front of other people? Even with the best intentions, even genuinely trying to express solidarity, that was very thoughtless and inconsiderate, at the very least, and was certainly not her place. But this is Mary’s story and it was meant as a show of her adhering to her “newfound commitment to full disclosure.” 

Look, this book is full of instances where the girls get in each other’s business. They are teenagers, after all. I get it. Being young is about learning from your mistakes, after all. Maybe light-hearted stories where girls daydream of being Elizabeth Bennet and behave selfishly is just not what I’m feeling right now.

Especially right now.

Published by francinewonders

Hi! My name is Francine and I spend a lot of time wandering about while wondering about stuff. I like to talk about cats, books, travel, and all things w@nderful. Follow me on Instagram: @francinewonders

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