Not The Nostalgia Chick: “Della says: OMG!” book review

It’s got a black cover, it’s got internet references in the blurb (“WANT ❤ AND LOL?”), it’s got a content warning about “strong language” – “Della Says: OMG!” is clearly aiming to be an edgier piece of teen fiction than “Avalon High”…

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Well, maybe not quite that edgy. However, this is a novel where the 16 year old heroine, both in her narration and in conversations with her best friend, mentions sex quite a lot and indeed eventually gets to do the wild thing with the object of her affections, so it definitely goes further on that front than Meg Cabot does. The author, Keris Stainton, is British – maybe our publishers are a bit more comfortable with grungy realism in their teen romance than American ones.

Ms Stainton was apparently a book blogger before she wrote this, her first novel, and she seems to have made a career out of writing afterwards, having published several more since it came out in 2010. “Della Says: OMG!” is the tale of the eponymous girl and her twin quests (a) to get together with Dan Bailey, the boy she’s had a crush on since primary school and (b) solve the mystery of who stole her diary and is selectively leaking particularly embarrassing pages of it. Is it bitchy rival girl Gemima Lee? Is it Della’s bitchy rival sister Jamie? Is it Mr Malone, the old guy from the store, but wearing white bedsheets and a ghost mask (“and I would have got away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”)?

I probably shouldn’t be treating stalking and harassment so lightly, but that’s one of the major problems with “Della Says: OMG!” At no point do you really get a sense that the stakes are particularly high, in either of the main plots. Dan kisses Della in the first chapter, and from then it’s really more a case of the relationship gradually developing than of “will they or won’t they?” Dan’s your typical wish-fulfilment boyfriend. A nice kid, sensible, emotionally mature – everything most teenage boys aren’t. He’s never going to belch loudly at an utterly inappropriate moment for a laugh or tell Della he can’t come out for an obviously made-up reason so he can play video games with his mates all evening instead.

As for the stalker, they seem to specialise in sending pages from the diary either to Della herself or to other people who either turn out to be predictably supportive (like Dan) or in ways Della can intercept. For a stalker, they’re amazingly considerate/incompetent, and thus totally lacking in real threat. And whilst you might not be able to guess who, you will probably be able to tell from the beginning that’s it’s one or other of the bitchy girls, because having a bitchy girl rival as the baddie is one of the oldest tropes of media for teenage girls.

Which takes us on to the other biggest problem with the novel – the characters. Only Della, Dan and Della’s friend Maddy really get a lot of characterisation – Dan’s nice if unrealistic, and Della herself, although generally a sympathetic and likeable character, comes across as a borderline nutter for having a crush on Dan from her first day in primary school until the age of 16 (11 years!), without doing anything about it, even talking to him.

What the hell is wrong with this broad? If you’d asked me at 16 who I’d met on the first day of primary school, I wouldn’t even have been able to tell you. Keris Stainton also apparently believes that you notice who the cutest boys in class are “even at that age”, which, to be honest, is not at all the way I remember sexual maturation working. To be fair, Della does frequently describe her lack of confidence, and a lot of shy people have crushes they never worked up the nerve to ask out, but this is extreme.

You also have to wonder what teenager in 2010 was still keeping a written diary, as opposed to using some form of social media. Again, to be fair, Stainton does try to explain this away, but it all makes a lot more sense when you read in the acknowledgments a mention that she herself lost her diary at a party thrown by her sister (it’s not clear whether this was as an adolescent or an adult).

The novel being partly autobiographical, like a lot of first novels, might explain some otherwise rather weird bits, such as Della and Dan’s apparently shared love of 1980s music like “Madness, Simple Minds, the Cure.” Whilst I can’t but sympathise with characters who admire the fine ska sounds of the Nutty Boys, it’s still a stretch to believe this would be true of most modern teenagers.

It makes more sense if this is really a version of Keris Stainton’s early life, and this autobiographical aspect might also explain why she occasionally seems to forget her characters’ exact age. Maddy wears “High School Musical” pyjamas “ironically”, which makes her sound more like a twenty-something hipster than a teenager. She says “I’m a social smoker and this is a social occasion.” I too, have met that person, but it wasn’t until university. And some of her and Della’s conversations include the sort of comments the thirty-somethings in “Sex and the City” might make.

The minor characters are pretty much all either unbelievable or annoying in some way. The bitchy girls are just bitchy – no real explanation needed. Della’s sister Jamie does get explained as, basically, an insecure attention-seeker, but that’s all done via narration from Della (“Show, Don’t Tell”). A lot is made of Della’s mum being a model in the 80s, but given that she ended up as a housewife up North, my guess is it was more like “C & A catalogue model” than the Cindy Crawford Della seems to think she was. In fact, Della finding that out might have been a more interesting plot than the ones she gets.

Della’s dad is supposed to own a chain of delicatessens, one of which Della works at part-time, but he’s a dire stereotype – a sitcom dad who exists to be bumbling and make unfunny jokes that his daughter can be embarrassed by. He comes off as so committed to being a full-time prat that it’s hard to believe he could be a successful businessman who married a model. His suppliers probably love him though. If you want shot of some past-their-prime horsemeat-based sausages, this berk will pay top dollar. Bob, Della’s co-worker at the shop, is (I think) meant to be the sort of gay best friend the “Sex and the City” characters pal around with, but since the gayness is only implied the level of interest he shows in a teenage girl’s love life honestly make him come across as more of a sexual predator.

A final point – the setting for this novel is Lancashire, which is where Keris Stainton lives. Given that the town appears to have a cathedral, and trips to Blackpool, Lytham and Manchester are all no big deal, I think it’s meant to be Blackburn. But you wouldn’t really guess if you weren’t told this in the narration. About the only distinctly Lancastrian thing the characters do is go on a day trip to Lytham (truly, they are the young and the reckless). So, whilst you have to give the author credit for setting it somewhere a bit unusual, it might as well have been London for all the good it does.

 

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