32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

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32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

Carter, Ernessa T. 32 Candles. Amistad 2010. ISBN 978-0061957840 352 pp. $

****

This “girl wants boy, girl (finally!) gets boy, girl loses boy” story starts strong, and finishes strong, but is little muddy in the middle.

32 Candles is the story of Davidia Jones, whose mother entertains a variety of gentleman callers–none of them her absent father–for a fee. Davidia, a homegirl in hand-me-downs, earns an unfortunate nickname and is bullied at school. Impersonating Tina Turner, and later, John Hughes films, are an escape from her poverty and torment, and when the local owner of a hair products company runs for political office and installs his attractive children at her high school, Davida pines for James, the handsome scholar quarterback, and daydreams of a happy ending where she is transformed from a duckling into a swan and wins the cute boy.

Her chance comes when she receives an invitation to a party at James’s home, but unlike a John Hughes film, her dress doesn’t make James fall at her feet. Shamed in front of her peers, Davidia runs away from home, escaping to L.A. by hitching a ride with a trucker named Mama Jane who sets Davidia up working in her nephew’s up and coming nightclub. Lo and behold, it turns out Davidia can sing, and she reinvents herself as Davie.

Fifteen years later, the one that got away walks into her gin joint, and falls hard for her. James doesn’t remember her from high school and Davie tries to play hard to get at first, but then gives in. It appears true happiness will be theirs–until Veronica reappears on the scene, and blows Davie’s cover.

The book is structured into four parts: Then, about Davie’s childhood; Now, about L.A.; In Between Then and Now (The Amendment), where we learn Davie is NOT as reliable a narrator as we believed, and Back to Now, where Davie runs around to make amends for the vengeful things she did in the Amended section. Frankly, the amended section makes her both a more authentic and less likable character.

The first third of the book is very readable. Davie is a relatable teen and has a snappy voice at the beginning, but don’t think it’s maintained throughout. The narrative slows down and I sort of lost interest in the making amends part–maybe I was just too annoyed at her not being who I thought she was.

Some great lines:

“Mississippi may have have had some of the lowest standardized test scores in the nation, but I’ll tell you this right now: The kids at my school excelled in creative cruelty. They nicknamed me Monkey Night within three weeks of making my acquaintance, because I was ugly like a monkey and black as night.'”

“Here’s the strange thing about peace: For a teenager it is unrecognizable. Until you lose it.”

The hot pink cover and silhouetted Afro’d girl is very marketable–it reminds me of an iTunes ad. I can see handing 32 Candles to fans of Omar Tyree – it’s a pretty positive urban rags to riches story. There is sexuality and language here, but it’s for effect to drive home the grittiness of Davie’s upbringing (in the case of Mama, hollering for her clients to f@#! her harder) or swoony to punctuate how right she and James are for each other (her first time with James, she gets off as soon as he touches her, and multiple times, huzzah).

The theme of identity remains strong throughout, as Davie reinvents herself, and then has to become someone she likes and can live with, and getting James back is less central to her happiness than just being a good person that she’s not ashamed to be. She reconnects and has a sort of reconciliation with her mother, and discovers the sad truth of her parenthood. The ending is predictable, like a John Hughes movie, but it’s forgivable, given the protagonist’s love for anything starring Molly Ringwald. A strong debut novel.

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