Charlotte and Franklin (Frankie) are fifteen-year-old girls who have been friends since they were eight. They read a lot of teen novels with heroines like the one described bit-by-bit in the first chapter, who has three-foot long red ringlets, is smoking hot but doesn’t care because she has (oooh!) a secret (Rape? Incest? No, that was the last one). One stormy day, the heroine meets a beautiful Iranian girl, and after a stress-filled relationship, there’s a scene on page 211 that’s pretty hot, but the plot is so familiar that they toss the book across the room. Charlotte decides to write a novel about real teenagers: “like, a searing document of today’s youth and how incredibly boring our lives are!” Eventually, which is to say two years from now, it will be her senior project, but in the meantime, she’ll do the best she can without the plot or character development necessary in novels, and write about nothing.
Well, on second thought, there is a kind of plot – even Charlotte has to admit it. It has to do with stuff that happens to the girls over Christmas break, two very nicely handled episodes that include Frankie’s romantic first kiss and Charlotte’s meeting Sid, who lives 200 miles north of the book’s San Francisco suburbs and with whom she has texted for some time. If you decide to believe Charlotte, there’s no character development, but in addition to her first-person voice, there’s Frankie’s third person narrative, which gives the book an aspect Charlotte’s narrative takes for granted too much to describe. Frankie, her much older sisters unkindly point out to her, is the love child who preceded the breakup and reassembly of two neighboring families. In less skillful hands, the situation could become a background for tragedy, but here, the parents are described with teenaged cynicism that aptly contrasts their passionate history and their totally boring present. And so far as plot goes, Frankie is the only one of five children left at home, until her stepbrother Max comes home for Christmas vacation with his friends, a broken heart, and a car that provides the road trip that consumes the last third of the book.
To readers who once cut their literary teeth on Barrows’s “Ivy and Bean” series, and others who enjoyed “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” of which Barrows is co-author, her Jane Austen-like skill with realistic detail and her subtle wit will be pleasantly familiar. The book is about real girls in a real landscape, going to school, doing homework, hanging out with a bit (not much) of drinking and weed, matter-of-factly saving a drunken friend from being raped at a party, and experiencing anguishing awkwardness at meeting a texting correspondent in the flesh. Barrows says she has written down everything the kids who hang out at her house have said, which explains the pitch-perfect ear for language that separates this book from the teen-speak of much current young adult fiction. Like many novels that follow best-sellers, Nothing has disappointed some of its less savvy reviewers, some of whom don’t share her wry vision, and others who have unjustly objected to its lack of diversity (Sid is biracial, a fact that bothers Charlotte not at all, though she can’t decide whether his long ponytail is hot or not). But people tired of the incessant adventures of action books or of issue-book didacticism in the novels Barrows gently satirizes will find her book a real pleasure to read.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.