Growing up in Glass, Miss., is anything but easy for Davidia “Davie” Jones. Given the moniker “Monkey Night” by her unforgiving classmates, Davie dreams of singing like Tina Turner and rising above her impoverished roots. After a traumatic incident with her mother makes her lose her desire to speak, Davie retreats inward and takes solace in the “Molly Ringwald” happy endings of films like “Sixteen Candles.” The film’s characters remind her that anything is possible — even the unlikely thing.
By the time she reaches high school, Davie is desperately in love with handsome and rich classmate James Farrell — but his cruel sisters treat Davie as if she’s the dirty gum on the bottom of her expensive heels. After another startling incident with the mean teens of Glass, Davie resolves to change her life and get away from her abusive, alcoholic mother. And that means getting away.
The bright lights of California welcome Davie like an embrace — though it isn’t easy. Brick by brick and moment by moment, Davie constructs a new identity from the ashes of her past and banishes Monkey Night forever. But when an unexpected figure from her past arrives on the scene, our heroine realizes high school never really ends.
Or does it?
Ernessa T. Carter’s debut 32 Candles is entertaining, addictive, heartbreaking, redemptive. By the final page, I felt like I’d gone on a true adventure and come so far with Davie. Saying she felt like a friend is a massive understatement.
As the novel’s anchor, Davie is a tenacious and intensely lovable person. There’s little doubt that our girl has experienced tremendous hardship, and the scenes where she’s taunted at school made my skin crawl. Teased for being dark-skinned and “ugly,” as her mother says, Davie wields her silence like a weapon against the people of Glass and the terrible kids with whom she grows up. Just when she thinks she’s finally getting through to James — a man who could see her for who she really is — an awful disruption ruins everything. And my heart hurt.
It’s easy to talk about characters being “multifaceted” and “unique,” but it’s not just lip service with Davie. We’re talking about a young woman who wears her hair in a giant, puffy Afro when the style is anything but popular. A woman who has no problem wearing the same style T-shirt for days on end. A woman who shirks the attentions of a wealthy, gorgeous man because she worries about his motives. Basically? A sensitive, intelligent and geeky chick who doesn’t worry about what you think of her. Not anymore.
And she’s flawed — deeply, deeply flawed. Not flawed in the sense that she’s a bad person, ’cause she’s totally not, but flawed because she’s vulnerable and susceptible to hurt. Davie felt like the best friend I want to call up and watch trashy TV with. The sort of buddy I’d see after a bad breakup so we could bash the jerk and eat pie. I loved that I loved her — and I loved that she felt so complicated and realistic.
32 Candles is chunked into several parts: the distant past; the recent past; and the present. For as much as I loved her, I had a sense that Davie wasn’t quite as reliable a narrator as she would have you believe — and I loved how things got turned on their heads quite often. What we thought was happening wasn’t always the truth, and I loved that Carter kept us guessing.
The sideline characters here are awesome, too. In addition to Davie and our male lead, we’re introduced to a bevy of folks who populate Davie’s world: Mama Jean, the truck driver who befriends Davie and acts as a stand-in mother; Nicky, the neurotic night club owner who takes a chance on Davie and can’t stop checking things off his many lists; and Cora, Davie’s self-centered and hurtful mother. No one in the book was propped up like a cardboard cut-out.
If you’re looking for a fun, contemporary and very memorable book, I highly recommend 32 Candles. Carter flexes her writing muscles to give us Davie — and her complicated, beautiful life will burrow into your heart.
4.5 out of 5!