Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot

The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot, 2002

And I know what you are going to say now, and no, it was not a date, Nadine. For God's sake, it was only Chinese food. In his aunt's kitchen. With Paco sitting there, waiting for one us to drop something so he could vacuum it up.

And no, he didn't make a pass at me. Max, I mean, not Paco. Although I don't see how he could resist, seeing as how I'm sure I was quite stunning in my it's-Saturday-night-and-I-don't-have-a-date sweats.

The fact is, Dolly has to be wrong about Max. He's no ladies' man. It was all very casual and friendly. It turns out we have a lot in common. He likes mysteries and so do I, so we talked about our favorite mysteries. You know, he's quite literary, for a photographer. I mean, compared to some of the guys in the art department at work. Can you picture Larry conversing knowingly about Edgar Allan Poe? I don't think so.

Oh, God, a horrible thought just occurred to me: What if all that stuff Dolly said about Max is true, and he IS a ladies' man? What does that mean, seeing as how he didn't make a pass at me?

It can only mean one thing!

Oh, God, I'm hideous!

Mel ----- (pages 80-81)

I spent a pretty reasonable chunk of my misspent youth reading Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries series (a series I still intend to finish one of these days). Although they were the definition of light reading, Cabot's sure hand with characterization, breezy first-person narration and her infectious and sometimes hilarious humor made the series a ton of fun. The Boy Next Door is the first adult Cabot novel I've read, and it's very similar to the author's YA work, just a little bawdier. It's also every bit as much fun.

The Princess Diaries, as the name suggests, is told through Mia's diary entries, and Boy is similarly narrated entirely through through the  characters' e-mails to each other. The-- rather thin--plot concerns gossip columnist Mel Fuller, a quirky, wide-eyed Midwestern transplant to the Big Apple. When Mel's elderly neighbor, Mrs. Friedlander, is assaulted, her playboy nephew Max Friedlander moves in to dog-sit. Mel and Max quickly fall for each other, but there's a complication: Max is really John Trent, a crime reporter who's been talked into posing as Max.

Like I said, what plot there is is wafer-thin and sort of beside the point. The novel's mystery element is so slight that Cabot seems to forget about it for long stretches, only to toss an occasional reminder that it exists. The fact that the solution is somewhat surprising is more a testament to how minor an impression the storyline has made than to any clever plotting. The climax is one of the book's most belief-suspension-requiring sequences, which doesn't help matters.

But the mystery plot isn't the point. Boy is a funny, clever romantic comedy in book form. Cabot's sprightly style is perfect for this kind of simple, gimmick-driven novel. We've seen the story in a million movies and sitcoms: boy meets girl, boy lies to girl, boy and girl make up. The plot may be nothing special in and of itself, but the execution is solid. Mel is a likably goofy chick-lit protagonist and John a lovingly drawn hunk with a heart of gold, and their romance is fluffily adorable (is 'fluffily' even a word?). There's no suspense about whether or not there'll be a happy ending (spoiler alert: there is); the fun is in the journey.

The e-mail format works quite nicely for a light novel of this kind. While he device absolutely stretches credulity--do these people even own telephones?--it also enables Cabot to let all of her characters give their side of the story without resorting to having twenty-five narrators. The characters are slightly cliched, it's true (the gossipy office sexpot, the bimbo supermodel, the flamboyant gay guy), but they're also very funny, even the broad caricatures like Mel's overbearing small-town mother or Mel's gruff boss. I do think some of John's e-mails represent the far edge of Cabot's abilities as a writer; too often his writing comes off as slightly feminine. 

Cabot's particular brand of smart-aleck humor is definitely in fine form here (just try not to giggle at the idea of a pair of cats named Mr. Peepers and Tweedledum). Most of the characters are deadpan snarkers in the grand style of Mia Thermopolis and the one-liners come fast and furious. I especially enjoyed Aaron, Mel's pompous hipster ex-boyfriend, whose pathetic brand of jerkiness is the butt of many of the best jokes. Max's dumb-but-endearing supermodel girlfriend is also kind of a fun character, and just a shade deeper than you might expect.

There's really not a lot to say about The Boy Next Door: for Cabot fans, it's a fast, refreshing read, heavy on humor and romance, light on suspense and drama. It's a good example of well-written chick lit, even if it's not about to end up on the Pulitzer shortlist.  

NEXT UP: Neil Gaiman's short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors.

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