** Major spoilers ahead **
First thing I’ll start out saying is that there’s a major divide between books two and three, and I think the reason Charmed Thirds received the negative backlash it did is because people were hung up on Second Helpings and expected the same tone to carry throughout. To like and understand this series you have to understand that the first two books take place in high school and it’s more familiar ground for the vast majority of its readers, who probably were in high school when they read it. The third takes place in college—it’s a whole different world, in fact it’s closer to the real world, where things are more complicated and the world is not as small as it is when you’re in high school.
With that out of the way, let me start at the beginning:
Sloppy Firsts is sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling’s diary for the last semester of her sophomore year and the first semester of her junior year. Her best friend Hope’s moved away, her parents couldn’t be more clueless about her and her needs if they tried, and she’s got no friends. Well, she does—except she hates all of them. They’re your typical in-crowd (or Upper Crust, as Jessica calls it): a bit dumb, very annoying, and endlessly bratty. “Jessica is quite hopeless. (Ha. In more ways than one.)” The moment that Hope moves away marks the beginning of the rest of Jessica’s life, because everything that happens that year is significant to the other books in the series.
I immediately fell in love with Sloppy Firsts not only for Jessica’s voice—it’s quite obvious I like snark, and she’s got plenty of it—but because I related a lot to Jessica. In fact, if it weren’t for Marcus Flutie, I would think Jessica was me. We were both runners, we both thought everyone around us were a bunch of idiots, and we were both very cynical about pretty much everything. But like I said—she’s got Marcus Flutie, druggie dreg, who’s interesting and an utter enigma, and she doesn’t know her own feelings for him. What’s more, it feels like he gets her.
But at the end she finds out it was all a farce and pushes him away.
Second Helpings is her journal during the summer before senior year and her senior year. She’s still cynical, witty, et al, as ever, but now she’s struggling with her college choices. In the meantime, there’s still Marcus in the background—and also his best friend Len. She wants nothing to do with Marcus, after all. She’s obsessing about being the last virgin—aside from Len—in her school. All those great Class Brainiac things.
Through a too-complicated-to-describe series of trials and tribulations (ick, hate that set phrase, but it is what it is), she accepts Marcus’s apology and they get together. She gets into her top choice college—Columbia—and it turns out her grandmother left her $50,000 in her will, which Jessica will use to pay for college. Everything ends up working out.
And this is where people end up confusing things. Second Helpings had a huge fairy-tale feel to it. Charmed Thirds? Not so much. Marcus, as always, is “predictable in his unpredictability.” His character goes from dream guy—admit it, you had a crush on him—to real guy, one who’s not always so…perfect. He makes it hard to like him. Jessica doesn’t know what to do, so she goes on with her life and sleeps with different guys and is, you know, as always, Jessica.
** End of spoilers **
I wasn’t as keen on the third as I was on the first and second because it’s just easier to like books where the characters do what you want them to do, but I still loved it. And here’s the thing—as Taren is always saying, these are those kinds of books where the main character, Jessica, is much too relatable and similar to you than is comfortable. (But don’t mistake her for an Evergirl character. Like I said: relatable. Not fill-in-the-blank.) She makes these books some of the most realistic you’ll find in YA and in crossover.
Even though these are very ordinary in their plot and such (it is mirrored on reality after all), the writing style is great, funny and insightful and filled with clever phrases and alliterations. Jessica’s observations are hilarious. The characters—especially the main ones—all have depth. In fact, Taren told me she thought this is why people found it hard to like Marcus in the later books—he’s an actual character and you can’t attribute him your own fantasies, because he’s got his own personality and is not a blank canvas.
Annnnnd. Then there’s Fourth Comings. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about it. On the one hand, I understand Jessica—as always. On the other hand, I didn’t like how some characters were portrayed in it, like Bethany, who I think lost all her depth from Charmed Thirds. I could see it as a natural progression to the series, granted, but there’s still a lot riding on Perfect Fifths.
If you haven’t read these already, be mindful of the difference between the first two books and the last two. They’re in different settings and it’s to be expected the characters will adapt to the new surroundings.
Definitely recommended. These books are tied for second with Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy on my list of favorites. Series overall grade? A-
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