Release Date: Sept. 7, 2010
Age Group: Young Adult
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper is cynical and loyal, and she doesn't think she's the prettiest of her friends by a long shot. She's also way too smart to fall for the charms of man-slut and slimy school hottie Wesley Rush. In fact, Bianca hates him. And when he nicknames her "Duffy," she throws her Coke in his face.
But things aren't so great at home right now. Desperate for a distraction, Bianca ends up kissing Wesley. And likes it. Eager for escape, she throws herself into a closeted enemies-with-benefits relationship with Wesley.
Until it all goes horribly awry. It turns out that Wesley isn't such a bad listener, and his life is pretty screwed up, too. Suddenly Bianca realizes with absolute horror that she's falling for the guy she thought she hated more than anyone.
The first thing that stood out to me about The DUFF was the cursing. I don’t remember there being any cussing in anything else I’ve read for Wastepaper Prose, but within the first few pages of The DUFF Bianca is cursing like a sailor. It’s a detail I appreciated not just because I enjoy cursing, but also because it’s one of many details that adds to the authenticity of almost every conversation in the novel. The way people interact in The DUFF is the way real people act and react. From Wesley using “Duffy” almost as a term of endearment and not realizing how much it bothers Bianca to the way Casey’s understandable anger dissipates as soon as she realizes just why Bianca has been such a flake, I struggled to find a scene that felt inauthentic. Characters make the same awful decisions for the same complex reasons as real people do. Supporting characters that appear for ten pages or fewer have more depth than some of the main characters in other novels I’ve read.
Very few characters come out of The DUFF without displaying some sort of dark side (neither Jessica nor Toby seems to have one). Some of the ugly parts are glossed over rather quickly, such as Casey’s not-entirely-selfless altruism, but most are rather obvious, like Wesley’s womanizing. The novel manages to touch on an impressive array of common issues in its short 200 pages, from alcoholism to divorce to teen pregnancy. Most impressive is that the novel doesn’t offer up any easy answers, instead realizing just how screwed up everyone is and how complicated all of these issues are for all parties involved. Its treatment of alcoholism and divorce is particularly strong. The novel somehow manages to squeeze in three points of view, three different ways of coping, and the repercussions each of the three characters’ actions has on the other two. And the divorce isn’t even the main plot. Impressive stuff.
While everyone comes out looking dirty, Bianca comes out of the novel looking the worst. She uses Wesley (just because he likes it doesn’t mean it’s not true). She uses Toby. For a decent chunk of the novel, she shuns her friends. She’s insecure, judgmental, unreliable, and a bit of a bitch. Having the main character of any narrative also be the biggest jerk is rare, but when done well, as it is in The DUFF it can make for some stellar storytelling. By not shying away from letting Bianca be a crappy person, Keplinger manages to capture pretty accurately how self-absorbed most of us were in high school (or at least how obliviously self-obsessed I was).
The DUFF also manages to subvert a lot of the Gossip Girl-ish beats to its plot. Easily my favorite example of this comes at the end of the novel, when Bianca is walking across The Nest to Wesley. She’s wading through the crowd and you can almost hear the cheesy music and see the film-reel-in-your-head slow down. Then she loses balance on her heels and falls over, commencing the least sappy starcrossed-lovers-finally-reunite scene I’ve read in quite some time. Sure, the plot point is basically two people who are meant to be finally realize it, but there are surprisingly few flowers and lollipops involved.
And now we get to the real strength of The DUFF which I hinted at earlier: its simple understanding of how people relate to each other and how to convey that to the reader. While I’d love to iterate through all of the examples I highlighted (“Toby, you’re stalling”), I think the following scene illustrates it the best:
He moved slowly forward, like he was afraid I might run away. Then he wrapped his arms around me, pulled me into his chest, and buried his face in my hair. We stood there together for a long moment, and when he finally spoke, I could tell the words came through sobs. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“I know,” I murmured into his shirt.
And I was crying, too
It would be so easy for an author to fall back of overblown emotion. You know, sadness welling up inside, dams bursting, so on and so forth. Instead, in just a few terse sentences, the conveys the awkwardness of not knowing how to ask for forgiveness; the relief of getting back something you thought you’d lost forever; and the knowledge that, while simply saying sorry will never be enough, you’ve got nothing else to offer. By the time she gets to, “And I was crying, too,” your heart is just as broken as theirs.