Just once, gentlest of readers, I would like to crack open a YA novel and see our heroine getting ready for a party. I would like to see her getting HERSELF ready for a party, and then I would like her to look in the mirror and say “damn, I look fiiiiine, as per usual.”
But no. Always, it’s “the girl in the mirror looked back at her.” The girl in the mirror being herself, just the surprisingly beautiful version of herself that her friends and/or Alice Cullen have helped pull together with flat-irons and body-conscious dresses and liquid eyeliner—or, as it happens in our selection here, The Secret Circle, random magical herbs. Drives me batty. What kind of weird destruction of the self is represented by this use of “the girl in the mirror”? What would Derrida say? And then, right, she’s always obviously bangin’ anyway. It’s the Anne Shirley thing, you know? Pale! Thin! Red-haired! Too tall! You know who that also describes? Nicole Kidman. And she’s not exactly wearing a bag over her head. Well, actually, if you’ve ever seen Nicole Kidman in the wild, she does actually wear a bag over her head, and a rash guard, and an umbrella, so as to remain extremely pale.
But, whatever, your heroine probably has “a dusting of freckles” or “slightly too-elfin ears.” “Too-elfin,” for Christ’s sake. Elves ≠ trolls, you know? I’d be happy to see it go two ways.
Way The First: “(Heroine) is a conventionally attractive teenage girl, which is why all the male characters in the book are drawn to her over and over again.”
Way The Second: “(Heroine) is pretty cute, but she’s got weird cystic acne on her forehead and her armpit fat makes her look weird in strapless dresses, which is why she’s slightly awkward and shy.”
What I’m saying is, Cassie Blake, our girl, is a fine-looking girl, despite having brown hair. Let’s get down to business.
I don’t know about your New Year’s resolutions, but I always like to have Official Resolutions and one or two that are too embarrassing to share, except for with you. In this case, I realized I can go WEEKS without reading anything besides my Google Reader feeds, and it’s time to get real. Real with The Secret Circle. I mean, I have a whole year to actually read that David Grann piece on Guatemala that I’m always recommending to others, right? Better to ramp back up with teen witches in ZOMG LOVE.
Generally, I have found that books with ‘secret’ in the title are less shitty than one would expect. I mean, who didn’t cringe when they first picked up that Donna Tartt book, and then completely adore it for the first… two hundred pages? One-fifty? And just as the subtext of The Secret History was “college is kind of awful and full of juiceboxes who are secretly looking to kill people for kicks,” the subtext of L.J. Smith’s The Secret Circle is “high school is kind of awful and full of juiceboxes who are secretly looking to kill people for kicks.”
Oh, and how awful this high school is. And how familiar! Apparently The Secret Circle is a new show on the CW, which I found amusing, as Cassie’s newfound witch-y/bitch-y sisterhood is clear spiritual kin to that one episode of “Gilmore Girls” where Rory gets almost-initiated into the Puffs at her weird WASP-y prep school. Minus the magic, but with just as many candles. (And of course, the CW is plundering another series of L.J. Smith books for “The Vampire Diaries.”) The Secret Circle should also be familiar to anyone who read That Other Series of Very Popular Teen Vampire Books, The One That Rhymes With “Highlight,” as said series kinda rips off The Secret Circle in numerous places. There’s this completely obvious part where Cassie has figured out that this smoking-hot gang of ladies is clearly a coven of witches, and they’re all “what do you think we are?” and she’s all “you use herbs for things other than salads! you cast spells! you probably have pointy hats!” which is an exact parallel for Bella Swan being all “your skin is icy cold! your eyes change color! you suck blood from mammals! you may or may not live on Sesame Street and enjoy counting things!”
Like many such books, of course, the paranormal aspects are really an afterthought. The important thing is that the secret-circle-of-witches is super popular and clique-y and have their very own cordoned-off portion of the school cafeteria (I am not joking) which boasts a microwave and a juice machine and a TV. Which is when you go online to figure out when this book was written (ooh, a microwave!), only to discover that the cover of the version you’re holding is a total reboot for the Twilight generation, and the original was published in 1992 and looks—see above—like a Christopher Pike novel. Which is probably why I didn’t read it originally, as Christopher Pike novels terrified me too much to even have on my bookcase and were generally read one chapter at a time and then thrown into the closet.
The more obviously retro-y part of The Secret Circle, at least this first book, is that it makes the non-existent sexual content of the first Twilight installment look like Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss. The closest we get is a “silver cord” between Cassie and Adam, which draws them spiritually closer to each other. It’s a total cock-tease. I mean, there was more overt eroticism in The Mill on the Floss (red mist, anyone?)
Books about teen witches, of course, are like catnip for the youngs. Always have been, always will be. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s mystifying, really, that Actual Wiccans (love you, actual Wiccans!) are so hardcore about WE DON’T CAST SPELLS, OKAY, WE JUST WORSHIP NATURE AND THE GODDESS, because that’s the exact opposite of good PR. If I controlled the international society of Wiccans (I know there is no such thing, and that is great), I would run it like Scientology, and would totally keep my members thinking that the ability to cast spells was just a level or two (or about forty thousand dollars in Wicca-classes) away, and then, much like the volcano-thetans, the truth would only be revealed to them when they reached Wicca Clear, at which point they’d be too into it to throw in the towel. Keep them wanting more, I say.
NOW TALK. I HAVE MISSED YOU.
• No, seriously, what would Derrida say? I have absolutely no idea what Derrida says about anything.
• What books and movies and TV shows and longform New Yorker articles do you pretend to have consumed? My parents never let me watch “My So-Called Life,” so I’ve only ever read a bad novelization while sitting in a bookstore when I was sixteen. True story.
• The story opens in Cape Cod, where Cassie is having a shitty time. The worst time I ever spent on Cape Cod involved a B&B constructed entirely from wicker. Why are B&Bs the worst? It’s like paying to have sex on a cot next to your grandparents, and then pretending their coffee is decent the next morning.
• It’s not just the Anne Shirley thing, right, it’s the Jo March thing. You can run your mouth about her “one beauty” all you want, but does anyone think that Laurie was falling in love with an uggo? He was hot, loaded and charismatic. He would totally have had a motorcycle if such a thing existed.
• Do you have cats? If so, what do you call that weird kneading-thing they do? I’m interested to see if it has a regional basis. My friend from Florida says her cat ‘makes muffins.’ I say my cat ‘makes biscuits.’
• Christopher Pike novels, right?
• If you are a Wiccan who actually does cast spells, and are currently feeling like Willow in “Buffy” when she met with the non-spell-casting college group of Wiccans, please tell us about it.
Nicole Cliffe is the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.