Miss Smithers

by Susan Juby
ISBN: 0006392652

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A Review of: Miss Smithers
by Heather Kirk

This young-adult novel chronicles the further adventures of Alice MacLeod, "world record holder in the Most Embarrassing Moments category," protagonist of Alice, I Think. In the sequel, Miss Smithers, 16-year-old Alice competes in the annual Miss Smithers competition in the isolated town of Smithers, in the northern interior of British Columbia. Often very funny, the story satirizes beauty contests, small-town life, and the Boomer generation. It also traces Alice's tentative growth toward greater self confidence and better relationships with family and friends. Although the book would have benefitted from tighter editing and a wider emotional range, it is frequently delightful.
Alice is a "reasonably high functioning girl" who regards herself as a "weirdo." She attends an "alternative school." She has a girlfriend named George who has just lost her virginity at a 4-H rally. She has a boyfriend named Goose with whom she schemes to "do it" too. Alice's father is a writer who rarely writes. Her mother, "an evangelical vegetarian, peace activist feminist," supports the family by working in a New Age bookstore and running the Crystalline Clarity Focus Candle Co., which makes and mails candles . . . when her father can bother to make and mail them.
Impulsively, Alice enters the Miss Smithers competition to spite her mother and get a 400-dollar clothing allowance. To her dismay, the competition requires her to take part in a series of scary events such as a photo shoot, an etiquette workshop, a fashion show, a public-speaking contest, and a talent show. Alice blows almost her entire allowance on a pair of leather pants from a motorcycle shop. She almost forgets to go to the photo shoot and shows up unprepared. Some of the other girls have gone out and had their hair and makeup professionally done. Alice spends the event "speculating on who among [her] fellow candidates has had sex."
Alice must leap other hurdles besides official events. For one thing, her mother and Goose accidentally distribute her private zine containing criticisms of her fellow candidates and townspeople. As a result, Alice gets picked on by female bullies and gets picked up by cool Karen. Alice admires Karen and is thrilled to be invited to spend a Saturday evening with her, but then she discovers that Karen is an alcoholic whose friends are irresponsible dimwits. Alice learns self-defence techniques, but she witnesses destructive conduct. On another occasion Alice herself gets drunk. The consequences, although described amusingly, are nearly tragic.
I laughed aloud many times as I read Miss Smithers, and I thought some scenes were brilliant; yet I found the book a bit too long, slow, and superficial. The beginning and end dragged slightly, and the middle could have been better organized with stronger character development and greater suspense. Too many of the secondary characters were not fully realized. For example, Alice's father has two sets of friends. Neither set is memorable. And why create two when only one is needed. Also, Frizz and Dirty, the representatives of the Rotten Ryders motorcycle gang are merely silly, and evidence no signs of miscreance, although the gang is "likely" a "criminal organization."
Main characters like Alice's parents and Alice herself are also somewhat shallow. The mother's change of heart about the competition is unconvincing, and Alice comes across as unfeeling. She is too self-involved to be grateful to the clear-sighted Mr. Polaski for saving her from a sexual predator, or to sympathize with the vulnerable, rejected Goose and George. When Alice herself becomes "depressed," the reason for her depression is unimportant, and the symptoms are ridiculous: "He found me lying on my back in my flannel pajamas, a toque and sunglasses, and staring at my oversize fuzzy slippers."
But then, although genuine highs and lows of emotion would have made the book more satisfying, Miss Smithers does not succumb to a terminal case of cuteness. The writing, when Alice gets beaten up and yet manages to help Karen escape from a potentially lethal situation, is gritty, and the scene in which Alice tries a "meat restaurant" is sardonic. Susan Juby is very gifted humourist. Alice, I Think was "a hit in the U.S. and Australia," according to the jacket-back blurb of the sequel, and Miss Smithers is likely to sell well too. Still, it's hard not to think that Juby and her editor were suffering from a mild case of over-confidence with Miss Smithers.

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