Review: Vegan, Virgin, Valentine by Carolyn Mackler

Vegan, Virgin, Valentine by Carolyn Mackler. Candlewick Press, 2006. Currently available.

Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction

Face Value: Sigh. Another disembodied girl. So boring. I would much prefer the cover image to be a hot, melting, oh-so-sexy grilled cheese sandwich. (If that sounds weird, don’t worry – it will make sense later.)

Does it break the slate? Yes, although it leaves the job unfinished due to an abrupt ending. Right when Mara is on the verge of doing her most Slatebreaking action of the entire book, Mackler leaves us hanging. So frustrating! But prior to that major revelation, Mara undergoes smaller Slatebreaking changes. She learns to stop slut-shaming her niece. She sees value in alternative educational and career paths.

Who would we give it to? High school overachievers, including myself back when I was in high school. This book hadn’t been written yet, but I sure could have used something like it when I was frantically trying to live up to everyone’s expectations.

Review: It is tough to read a character that reminds you of qualities in your own personality that you dislike. Mara Valentine is one of those characters for me. She has all of the obsessive, overachieving, uptight qualities that I try so hard to overcome. It was particularly painful to read Mara’s senior-year struggles because they reminded me of my own awkwardness and difficulty loosening up in high school. That set me up for a great deal of discomfort when I was reading the book – but it was the good kind of discomfort. It was the kind of discomfort that pushes you to look more closely at yourself and have a more personal reading experience with a book.

Mara Valentine is the perfect daughter. She gets stellar grades, she is actively involved in her high school’s drug-free programming, and she has a job on the side to earn money. She has already been accepted to Yale and is in the running for valedictorian. Her parents love her, support her in everything she does, and couldn’t be more proud. Which is great because Mara is the major success of the Valentine family. Her older sister Amy turned out to be a bit of a wild child. Amy never finishes anything she starts and she is off gallivanting around the world with various boyfriends. Amy is significantly older than Mara, and she has a daughter. That daughter is V, Mara’s niece. V is only a few years younger than Mara. And because of Amy’s latest crazy adventure, V is coming to live with Mara and her parents. It sounds fun, right? Mara gets to hang out with her niece who will also go to her high school! Except V has some of Amy’s wild streak, and the two girls have never gotten along. When V moves in, Mara feels like her perfect little world is crashing down around her.

V brings turmoil to Mara’s life as she hooks up with random guys at school (including Mara’s ex boyfriend), riles up teachers and students, and indulges in some illegal substances. Mara is disgusted by V’s antics and wishes that her delinquent niece wasn’t around to screw up what was supposed to be a pristine senior year. Mara’s parents, meanwhile, are so busy trying to support V and help her straighten out her life that they have little attention to spare for Mara.

Mara’s life at school is almost as stressful as her life at home. She is in a stiff competition for the position of valedictorian with her ex boyfriend Travis, who happens to be the other most active and academically successful student at school. While they were dating, Travis kept pushing Mara to engage in sexual activity for which she didn’t feel ready. When Travis dumped her, Mara was devastated. She felt that she had no control over her life. To gain control, she altered her diet and became a vegan. For Mara, veganism has some sort of weird connection to her sexuality. Because she wasn’t sexually compatible with Travis, she denied herself animal products – including stuff that she loves, like eggs and cheese. So instead of sex dreams, Mara has dreams about cheese. Melting, gooey, delicious, cheese – in grilled cheese sandwiches, on quesadillas, on nachos – it’s all about that sexy, sexy cheese. These cheesy dreams are hilarious, of course, but they reflect just how uptight Mara is. She has denied herself pleasure on so many levels for so long that she is starting to unwind.

As the year goes on and V settles down a bit, Mara finds it increasingly difficult to deal with the pressure in her life. The stress builds and comes to an insurmountable point during Mara’s improvisational dance class. She enrolled in the class to get college credit – and also because she thought it would help her loosen up. But as her classmates frolic around the room pretending to be gazelles or pinecones or teacups or whatever, Mara finds herself paralyzed with self-consciousness. She is unable to let loose and make stuff up on the spot. It doesn’t help that the jerk of a dance teacher running the class continues to pick on her. When she cannot take it anymore, Mara walks out of class and ditches week after week. It’s the first time she’s ever quit something and not been successful. And it is a major turning point for her.

The dance class situation spoke to me so strongly because throughout my theatre training I have taken many a movement class that made me feel uncomfortable. I distinctly remember a college acting class during which I was crawling around a room on all fours pretending to be a sheep and baaahing loudly. The improv dance class is the place where Mara realizes that she doesn’t have to live up to everyone’s expectations, especially if she thinks those expectations are ridiculous. I think this is the moment in Vegan, Virgin, Valentine when Mara brakes the slate. She makes a choice to start making her own choices rather than letting other people make decisions for her.

After that turning point, Mara makes some choices. She decides to accept that she has feelings for a coworker at the coffee shop and pursue that relationship – which allows her to be sexually fulfilled in a way that she never could be with her ex, Travis. She decides to make some different choices about her future that will definitely shock her parents and teachers. And she decides to relax on the vegan diet and start eating dairy products so that she can enjoy that wonderful cheese again. It was so refreshing to see a character step back from her own life and do some difficult self-evaluation. Mara knows that her choices aren’t going to please everyone, especially the adults in her life, but she has to do what’s best for her. This is such an important message for female readers who face immense pressure from parents, teachers, and the culture at large to be “perfect girls.”

And it’s at this wonderful moment when Mara is about to reveal her choices to her whole community that MACKLER ENDS THE BOOK. We are left hanging at the moment right before Mara makes a huge public decision. Obviously, this was a dramatic choice for the author to make, and it is effective in some ways – we are left knowing that Mara has the confidence to carry out her plan, even if we don’t get to witness it. But I still felt robbed. I really wanted to read that final scene.

Reviewed from digital library copy.

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